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A Seahorse Year

A Seahorse Year

4.2 4
by Stacey D'Erasmo

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In Stacey D’Erasmo’s acclaimed second novel, a quintessentially modern family is ultimately transformed by the emerging breakdown of their teenaged son, Christopher. When he disappears from his San Francisco home, his extended family comes together in a frantic search. But Christopher is in much more trouble than they know, and their attempts to support


In Stacey D’Erasmo’s acclaimed second novel, a quintessentially modern family is ultimately transformed by the emerging breakdown of their teenaged son, Christopher. When he disappears from his San Francisco home, his extended family comes together in a frantic search. But Christopher is in much more trouble than they know, and their attempts to support him and to save him will challenge their assumptions about themselves and one another.

Exquisitely crafted, A Seahorse Year is an absorbing read that explores the ways in which love moves us to actions that have both redemptive and disastrous consequences, sometimes in the same heartbeat.

"A Seahorse Year compellingly explores love's connections and limits . . . [D'Erasmo] writes with a graceful, sometimes devastating directness, in clear, crisp phrases lined with subtle lyricism." -- Boston Globe

"Beautiful, addictive . . . an elegant, glancing humor flecks the book . . . wonderfully observed ." -- Newsday

"You could read Stacey D'Erasmo for the subtlety of her insights or the beauty of her language or for her tumbling, shifting arrangements of plot and characters . . . Or you could just open A Seahorse Year and be mesmerized." -- The Advocate

Stacey D'Erasmo is the author of the novel Tea, which was selected as a New York Times Notable Book and a Book Sense 76 Pick. A Seahorse Year, her second novel, was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. She lives in New York City.

Editorial Reviews

Margot Livesey
Like Byatt and Shields, D'Erasmo is too interested in conveying the texture of lived experience to reach a neat conclusion. Certain aspects of her characters remain properly mysterious, and the novel's ending leaves them, as it should, in the midst of their lives. But what is abundantly clear throughout is D'Erasmo's talent and intelligence. A Seahorse Year succeeds in being both deeply satisfying and quietly subversive.
The New York Times
Susan Coll
The present-tense voicing and quick splicing between scenes lend a nice sense of urgency to the narrative. As Hal heads to visit Christopher in a psychiatric institute, he muses that the purpose of his life is "this exact drive, on this exact day, at this exact moment." One can almost imagine Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway reflecting on a certain moment in June.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
D'Erasmo's quiet, penetrating second novel (after Tea) follows a San Francisco family coping with a 16-year-old son's mental illness. Christopher's mom, Nan, is in a long-term relationship with girlfriend Marina, who's like another mom; his sperm donor dad, Hal, is gay, a dancer-turned-CPA. But despite the unconventional setup, his parents sometimes act with the confused stiffness of the most traditional of families. When Christopher runs away the first time, Nan is distraught; she explains that her son had "a freak-out, we think. He wouldn't wash, he was angry all the time, he was saying all sorts of strange stuff, and he just, he just wasn't Christopher." After Christopher is fetched home, he's diagnosed with schizophrenia; Nan, meanwhile, is grasping at connection, and Marina's sleeping with someone else. D'Erasmo portrays Christopher's strange thoughts with beauty and insight; his misguided girlfriend, Tamara, is also tenderly, convincingly rendered. The family's unsettled state adds to the complications, as Christopher nearly kills himself and then escapes, with Tamara's help, from a mental health facility. As D'Erasmo shifts between different points of view-distinct, but united by her lush prose-she paints a portrait of illness, but also of growth and change. 5-city author tour. Agent, Jennifer Carlson. (July 7) Forecast: The book's non-traditional family set-up and effortless prose will remind readers of Michael Cunningham's early novels, and should help build D'Erasmo's readership. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In her second novel (after Tea), D'Erasmo explores how a supposedly unconventional family is no different from a traditional one when confronted with difficult choices. Set in contemporary San Francisco, the story centers on Nan, an ex-Texan bookseller; Hal, an accountant who was once a local celebrity in a campy gay troupe; their teenaged son, Christopher; and Nan's artist lover, Marina. The balancing acts that define their lives are challenged when Christopher is diagnosed with a serious mental illness and disappears into the northern California hills with his girlfriend. Alternating perspectives and controlled, nuanced writing bring depth and compassion to each character, illuminating their flaws and contradictions to full effect. While this is a strong domestic drama, it loses momentum toward the end and is weakest in its depiction of teenage angst (e.g., the repetitive references to P.J. Harvey run thin). But the sympathetically drawn characters and brilliant moments in her writing make D'Erasmo an author to watch. Recommended for most fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/04.]-Misha Stone, Seattle P.L. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A typically atypical San Francisco family (two gay mothers and a gay father) restructure their lives after their son is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Sixteen-year-old Chris's condition has just emerged. He's missing, and his biological mother Nan and father Hal are beside themselves. Behind her matter-of-fact exterior, Nan is a fragile soul whose unhappy, abused childhood has led her to a passionate need for family and home. Although Hal was literally a sperm donor-he and Nan never actually had sex together-he has been an intensely involved father. Rounding out the picture is Marina, the artist who lives with and deeply loves Nan but is currently having an affair with an art student. After the first harrowing scenes of his disappearance, Chris is found and diagnosed, but the emotional roller coaster ride has just begun. Hal, once a dancer in a group resembling the Coquettes of the '60s but now a CPA, pays for an expensive clinic that places Chris on a semi-experimental drug protocol that calms him. When he comes home, fat and docile, he resumes his relationship with his girlfriend Tamara, and the adults want to believe he's better. But after a nearly fatal disaster at the beach, he enters another facility, though Tamara, in a misguided act of obsessive adolescent love, helps him escape. Chris isn't able to cope, and another near disaster occurs before the teenagers are found. Meanwhile, Nan and Marina's relationship crumbles while Hal finds love with a corporate mediator (who happens to be black). Chris goes on to a group home, a job, a life, imperfect but his own. Second-novelist D'Erasmo (Tea, 2000) creates a fully realized world of politically correct yet complex characters andsituations, but a tone of self-important seriousness that goes beyond the demands of the admittedly serious situation may well get on readers' nerves. Iris Murdoch-lite but without Murdoch's light touch. Agent: Jennifer Carlson/Dunow Carlson

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Hal walks uphill. My son is mad, he
thinks, and
turns a corner, passing a coffeehouse
where three women
in sweatshirts sit at an outdoor table.
It's cool, gray, and
damp: summer in San Francisco.

"Hey, Hal," says one, a client. Hal waves.

"Yeah, he's great," she says to a friend
as he walks on. "He got
me back a thousand dollars last year."

My son is mad, thinks Hal. I am dying.
He almost stops to call
Nan and say that — I am dying, I am
dying — but he knows that
she will reply, calmly, "You are not
dying, Hal. Did you talk to the
police today?"

Sometimes he just can't handle her — her
persistence, her
smooth face, the way she occupies any
chair as if she has just built
it herself out of a tree she felled with
her little saw. I am lost, he
thinks, I am sure that I'm dying, my son
is mad, and his mother
won't admit that she can't carry him by

Hal walks on. No one has found
Christopher yet, no one has
called to say that they've seen him, no
one — not even Nan — has
come in from the desert or the mountains
carrying him. Hal
looks up at the sky, as if Christopher
might appear there, but
the sky is blankly bluish gray. Back in
Christopher's room in Hal's
house, Christopher's saltwater fish tank
is burbling to itself. Expensive
fish circle through the carefully tended
water: a lionfish,
a snowflake eel, three temperamental
tangs, and a bamboo cat
shark who spends most of its timelying
on the bottom of the
tank, looking malevolent and morose.
Since Christopher has been
gone, it has fallen to Hal to take care
of Christopher's fish. This
morning, Hal noticed that the tank
seemed warm and the fish
sluggish, that they were swimming
slowly, like a carousel winding
down. Hal felt a panicky rush. He
believes in omens and portents
and signs of all kinds. He immediately
set out for the aquarium
store, the good one in Noe Valley where
he had opened an account
for Christopher. He thought he might see
an omen or sign
on the way, but so far there has been
nothing, nothing at all, but
that random, friendly hello and miles of
sky without a break.

Hal looks down again, at the street. A
not uninteresting man
with a squashy nose looks Hal's way, but
Hal doesn't look back.
Hal, walking uphill, is equally certain
that Christopher is alive
and that he is dead. Either way, he is
certain that it will fall to him
to carry Christopher — who, at sixteen,
is much too heavy and tall
now to be carried even by Hal — in the end.

Nan works in her garden. It is a long,
narrow plot of land containing
four square beds of flowers outlined by
planks of silvered
wood; around the beds is grass. Around
the garden is a fence, also
silvered. Trumpet vines tumble wantonly
over the fence toward
earth. Midway down the garden is a
slender, deep purple, flowering
plum that has never flowered or plummed
but maintains a
hopeful, leafy look. A few feet away
from the plum tree, nestled in
some tall grasses and a few wayward
daisies, is the stone head of
Sor Juana. Nan pulls a few weeds from
around the pansies. She
chews on a shred of chive. Her right hip
aches, a tedious reminder
of being forty-five, of the car accident
at eighteen that broke her
hip in the first place, and of the doctor
inMexico who didn't set it
right. She picked up the statue during
that trip, before she even
knew who Sor Juana was or had a garden
to put her in. She just
liked Sor Juana's melancholy, downturned
stone eyes, her stone
wimple; feeling like Orpheus, Nan lugged
her back over the border
on the bus, placing her heavy stone head
on the next seat.

Nan's body remembers everything and
retells it to her from time
to time whether she wants to hear it or
not. She taps a loose end
of a plank into place with her spade.

Marina said, over dinner the night
before, "He's all right. I feel
that he's all right."

Nan had stared at her plate, willing
herself not to think. She
found her hand closing and willed her
fingers to open. She willed
herself not to say, "You couldn't
possibly feel him. You didn't bear
him or raise him." She put her plate in
the sink and walked outside
to stand in the dark garden. But what
was worse was the fact
that Nan didn't feel anything either.
She had no idea at all where
Christopher could be. No breeze stirred
the dark leaves.

Today the garden is calm. Nan stands up,
holding the spade:
a hopeless, foolish tool against the
wide world. She thinks how
foolish she herself must look, a short
woman with short, graystreaked
hair, in dirty jeans, armed with nothing
but a spade. She
sighs, dirty fingers clenched around the
dirty spade. She closes
her eyes for a minute, thinks
then opens them again. The garden
remains empty.

Nan leans down to pick a few small green
tomatoes for the
windowsill. She tugs at a weed. Her hip
complains. The cool,
damp air washes over her. She tries to
feel comforted by its purity.
She listens intently for some sound or
cry, perhaps from a great
distance, but the only sound is the
chink of her spade in the earth.
Marina paints the branch of a tree. The
light in her studio is
muted. The studio is in a converted
church in the Mission; now
it's a church of art. She works in the
choir room, a boxy space with
rickety windows and the ghost of the
smell of wet wool. It's a
mess: scattered around the room are,
among other things, her bicycle,
canvases in various states of use, work
boots, cans of powder
paint and acrylic, squashed tubes of oil
paint, archival glue
and Elmer's glue, a jigsaw, a drill,
sketchbooks, a box of old snapshots
bought at a flea market and another two
or three overflowing
with cut-up old books and magazines from
her collage period,
a hunk of dried-out clay, a kid's bead
loom in a box that says
american indian loom, a ruler, a bunch
of mismatched baby
shoes, a sculpture leaning against one
wall — an exchange with
another artist — which looks something
like a side of cured beef.

A big plastic bucket is filled with
clipped pictures of nineteenth-century
valentines. Hearts and the empty shapes
where hearts
used to be are tangled together. The
bucket sits under a table
with curlicue white metal legs and a
glass top, meant to be patio
furniture; the glass is covered with
swirls and blobs and streaks
of paint, years of it in a multicolored,
perpetual storm. Tacked
onto the wall next to Marina's worktable
is a yellowed postcard of
an Agnes Martin painting: rows of white
lines like stitches traced
vertically across a slate background,
determined and lonely and
earthy. When she first met Nan, she
thought Nan was like that

Scotch-taped to the upper frame of one
window are three dried
seahorses, a gift from Christopher: one,
two, three little rocking
creatures with fixed rococo stares. There
is a rent notice lying
on the floor near the door, along with a
note from Turner, a
printmaker who has the studio directly
beneath Marina's. The
note says, The cow Roberta won a Prix de
Rome. She's a cow. COW.

Marina can hear Turner below her,
laughing and talking on his
cell phone. Through the old porous
floorboards, she can smell the
etching acid he uses.

Marina dots the tip of the branch. It's
okay. Today the tree is
okay, not so bad, she won't have to
scrape it off and start again.
Probably. She looks at it, wrapping a
lock of hair around her
finger: a schoolgirl habit, though this
schoolgirl has a head of silver
hair cut in a bob that just grazes the
nape of her long neck.

Marina is only thirty-eight, but her
hair has been silver since she
was twenty-five. She would no more have
bothered to dye it than
she would have bothered to iron a
wrinkled shirt or mend a
sweater with a hole. She has always
preferred a life of casual accretion.
In fact, she believes in it, almost as
an ars poetica: what
accretes naturally always turns out to
be exactly what's needed.
Painting should be like riding a bike
with no hands, a mixture of
velocity and trust.

For instance, this tree that she's been
making for the last seven
years: it hasn't been that well
received, but she has persevered for
reasons she can't quite explain. She's
made the tree big; she's made
the tree small; she's made the tree in
oil, watercolor, gouache, collage,
tinfoil, Polaroid, and acrylic; she's
repeated identical trees in
suspiciously regular rows on a single
canvas; once she made an
entire forest of trees from fabric
remnants. This is a tree in oil,
dense and telegraphic. She might have to
scrape it off after all.
There's another tree, a tree she can see
clearly in her mind's eye,
that will not fail, as this one suddenly
seems in imminent danger
of doing. The tree at this point has
become fairly representational,
close to the tree she drew over and over
again when she was ten.

It's a leafy, spreading, eastern sort of
tree that seems quite specific,
though if one were to look at it more
closely, one would see that it
isn't actually any particular organic
species at all. Its branches
bend strangely; its leaves are an
uncanny shape. There are suggestions
of faces in the bark. When she first drew
it as a child in Los
Angeles, it was a tree she had never
seen, except in a dream. In the
dream, it was the most beautiful tree in
the world. She woke up
needing to draw it. That was all she
knew. In many ways, she
thinks it may be all she still knows.
She begins on another branch,
with guarded hope.

When the wind blows, the rickety window
shakes and the three
seahorses, loose in their old tape, rap
very faintly on the glass. It is,
to Marina, an unbearable sound. In one
corner of her studio, a
boom box splattered with paint rests
next to a wooden tray full of
a random collection of CDs: some opera,
some Depeche Mode, a
boxed set of Patti Smith with crushed
corners. She doesn't turn
on the boom box. She listens hard for
the tiny, unbearable rattle
of the seahorses. It seems important.

Christopher has been gone seven days.
Day by day, the time
accretes with other events, events of
much greater magnitude that
have affected many more people: an
earthquake in El Salvador; a
change of power in Israel; the rise of
the temperature of the earth
by a fraction of a degree. Those events,
however, are bearable.
What is not bearable is the silence,
punctuated by that tiny, almost
imperceptible rapping. How will they
survive this? Marina has no
idea. A leaf appears, then another.

Nan parts Marina's thighs with her
hands, buries her hands, her
tongue, in Marina, as desperately as if
this is their last fuck on
earth. Marina shakes, but doesn't come
yet. She pulls Nan up beside
her in the twisted sheets. Nan is
sweating and crying at the
same time, and her lips feel rough and
hot. Marina kisses Nan
with deep, purposeful kisses, wanting to
draw the poison out, but
they are both poisoned, so she can't.
They can only pass the poison
between them. Nan reaches into the
drawer of the night table
and pulls out the old cracked maroon
cock, slides it up inside Marina,
whose glue- and paint-stained shirt is
still half-buttoned on
her body. Her silver hair is snarled and
sweaty. Nan says into Marina's
ear, "Give it here," and when Marina
does it's like a wall falling
down and on the other side of the wall
is a rushing wind.

Marina starts to cry. Nan sits up,
running the heels of her hands
through her hair. She looks at the clock
and sees that only twentyone
minutes have gone by.

Somewhere near Denver, Christopher
hitches a ride with a truck
heading south.

Copyright © 2004 by Stacey D'Erasmo.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

STACEY D’ERASMO is a recipient of Guggenheim and Stegner Fellowships, the author of three previous novels and a book of nonfiction, The Art of Intimacy. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times (Magazine and Book Review), Bookforum, and Ploughshares, among others. She teaches in Columbia University's MFA program.

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Seahorse Year 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book stays with you long after you put it away for the day. I cannot stop thinking about the characters. They are in the car with me and at work with me and having dinner with me. An exceptional book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A Seahorse Year is a wonderful book; D'Erasmo's prose is lush and seamless, and her characters are flawed, engaging and painfully human. The symbolism gets a little out of control sometimes, though only really in scenes featuring Marina, whose character D'Erasmo loads up with way more symbolic weight than she can bear. But it's a brilliantly conceived, beautifully written book, one of the best novels about mental illness I've read.