When Christine disappears, suspicion falls on the Wainwrights' scheming neighbor, Andy Palinkas, who loathes Christine's parents. The unfolding mystery exposes the truth behind the Wainwrights' respectable façade: a convoluted saga of unwanted children, disastrous marriages, romantic double-crosses, and domestic plots and counter-plots.
Joseph Dobrian's new novel, Ambitions (Rex Imperator, 426 pps., trade paperback, $17.95, ISBN 978-0-9835572-3-4) is a stark, elegantly written family drama set in a Midwestern university town. It's a story of aspiration, adoration, and betrayal that explores some of the ugliest realities of human interactions. At the same time, it conveys a message of hope to readers who strive to realize their own ambitions.
REVIEW BY JEFF-CHARIS CARLSON, in the IOWA CITY PRESS-CITIZEN:
Like "Anna Karenina," Joseph Dobrian's new novel, "Ambitions," should be required reading in premarital counseling or pre-parenting classes.
Like Leo Tolstoy 140 years before him, Dobrian understands intimately the profound truth within the axiom: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And like the thousand-page Russian masterpiece, Dobrian's 440-page "Ambitions" provides a veritable catalog of various unhappy marriages and parent-child relationships.
Unlike Tolstoy's Konstantin Levin, however, Dobrian's authorial stand-in character, Andy Palinkas, isn't working his way through one of the family relationships in question. Instead, as the middle-aged owner of a men's clothing store, he remains an unmarried, well-dressed man who, disappointedly, tends to give off the wrong vibe to the women he finds attractive.
Yet Andy's bachelor-status also leaves him free to observe, gossip about and learn from the failings of his coupled and kidded customers, colleagues and fellow citizens. And his mentoring relationship with his neighbors' teenage daughter - whose life he saved when she was a child - provides him with a good deal of behind-the-scenes dirt on the main characters.
Throw in Andy's many business contacts and his frequent appearances at various School of Music concerts, and the character soon has all the information he needs to narrate a compelling story, seven years after the fact, from a third-person, limited-omniscient (and highly snarky) perspective.
Dobrain's own sepia-tinged narrative style often makes the 2000s setting of the novel feel more like a half-century earlier. And despite the novel's dramatic opening with the disappearance of that teen-age neighbor, "Ambitions" is much more a multi-generational character study than a plot-driven mystery.
Set against the backdrop of a thinly fictionalized version of Iowa City - State City, a UNESCO-designated "City of Music" - Dobrian's already on-target psychological insights hit even closer to home. Although there are many times in which both Andy and Dobrian seem to be having almost too much fun at others' expense, Dobrian generally is empathetic with his characters whose mundane lives are drowning in their own ordinariness.
As with Dobrian's Writers' Group columns and his earlier essay collection, "Seldom Right But Never in Doubt," there are a few times when you feel like throwing the book across the room - mainly in frustration at the blitheness in which the characters go about ruining their lives. But the novel proves to be surprisingly addictive. (I found it so hard to put down that I made it through 300 pages in the first night and had to go to work bleary-eyed the next day.)
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