A Seahorse Year: A Novel

A Seahorse Year: A Novel

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by Stacey D'Erasmo

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Stacey D'Erasmo's new novel, following the highly acclaimed Tea, is a powerful and beautiful book about a pivotal year in the life of a quintessentially modern family. In contemporary San Francisco, an extended family is transformed by the emerging breakdown of a troubled adolescent boy. The lives of those who love Christopher—his mother, Nan; her lover,


Stacey D'Erasmo's new novel, following the highly acclaimed Tea, is a powerful and beautiful book about a pivotal year in the life of a quintessentially modern family. In contemporary San Francisco, an extended family is transformed by the emerging breakdown of a troubled adolescent boy. The lives of those who love Christopher—his mother, Nan; her lover, Marina; his gay father, Hal; and Christopher's loyal girlfriend, Tamara—are pushed to the edge by something new in him that mystifies them all. When he runs away, far into the woods of nothern California, their assumptions about themselves and one another are sorely tested. They might not, they discover, be quite so modern as they once thought. Even the dried seahorses on Marina's windowpane rattle unnervingly as if to announce a time like no other.
In precise, lyrical language, A Seahorse Year explores love at the limits of bearability. It is wise about the things we do out of love that often have both redemptive and disastrous consequences. Difficult questions that have all the tough complexity of real life are asked; devastating truths are revealed in the answers.
Michael Cunningham described Tea as "pure and profound, a ravishing book." A Seahorse Year is an even richer, more luminous achievement.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Beautifully plotted, cunningly structured, and richly textured, this gorgeous novel offers rare pleasures of both character and language."—Andrea Barrett

Her prose pulses with just how it feels to live now; she has an astonishing feel for the texture of contemporary life. . .superb."—Mark Doty

"D'Erasmo's quiet, penetrating second novel. . .follows a San Francisco family coping with a. . .son's mental illness. . .with beauty and insight." Publishers Weekly

"Abundantly clear throughout is D'Erasmo's talent and intelligence. A Seahorse Year succeeds in being both deeply satisfying and quietly subversive."—Margot Livesey The New York Times Book Review

"Fluent in the subtlest of psychological states and gloriously visual in her resonant descriptions." Booklist, ALA, Starred Review

"A quietly effective novel about family strife….This book demands commitment and ends up compelling commitment because of Stacey D'Erasmo's intense insights into her characters and their deep affection for each other and for life."—Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio

"[D'Erasmo] writes with a graceful, sometimes devastating directness, in clear, crisp phrases lined with subtle lyricism."—Karen Campbell Boston Globe

"Each character, and each voice, seems perfectly necessary. [D'Erasmo] makes you feel that this is the most economic way to tell this sad, gorgeous story."—Claire Dederer Newsday

"...psychologically complex and lyrical..."—Irina Reyn The San Francisco Chronicle

"Alternating perspectives and controlled, nuanced writing bring depth and compassion to each character . . . D'Erasmo [is] an author to watch." Library Journal

"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."—Regina Marler The Advocate

"Unflinching prose that’s both descriptive and soulful."—Beth Greenfield TimeOut New York

"A Seahorse Year is a stunning achievement."—Suzan Sherman

"D'Erasmo deftly filters this increasingly suspenseful story. . .offering an unflinching view into the. . .lives of this unconventional clan."—Jenny Feldman Elle

"After turning a page or two of A Seahorse Year, you’ll know you’re into something special."—Kevin Allison Out Magazine

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

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.63(d)

Read an Excerpt

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 herself.

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 time lying 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 wiith 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 ChristopherChristopherChristopher, then opens them again. The garden remains empty.

Nan leans down too pick a few small green tomatoes for the windowsilllll. 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 painting.

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
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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.