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The Sorrows of an American

The Sorrows of an American

4.0 3
by Siri Hustvedt

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When Erik Davidsen and his sister, Inga, find a disturbing note among their late father's papers, they believe he may be implicated in a mysterious death. Siri Hustvedt's The Sorrows of an American tells the story of the Davidsen family as brother and sister unbandage its wounds in the year following their father's funeral. Erik is a psychiatrist dangerously


When Erik Davidsen and his sister, Inga, find a disturbing note among their late father's papers, they believe he may be implicated in a mysterious death. Siri Hustvedt's The Sorrows of an American tells the story of the Davidsen family as brother and sister unbandage its wounds in the year following their father's funeral. Erik is a psychiatrist dangerously vulnerable to his patients; Inga is a writer whose late husband, a famous novelist, seems to have concealed a secret life. Interwoven with each new mystery in their lives are discoveries about their father's youth--poverty, the War, the Depression--that bring new implications to his relationship with his children.

This masterful novel reveals one family's hidden sorrows in an "elegant meditation on familial grief, memory, and imagination" (Minneapolis Star-Tribune).

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“I think I am in love. . . . This is one of the most profound and absorbing books I've read in a long time.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“Beautiful . . . both a large-scale examination of the idea of America and a close inspection of the experiences of coping with trauma and loss.” —Margot Kaminski, San Francisco Chronicle

The Sorrows of an American is a thought-provoking book that offers pleasures across many different registers. . . . Here again [Hustvedt] proves herself a writer deftly able to weave intricate ideas into an intriguing plot.” —Sylvia Brownrigg, The New York Times Book Review

The Sorrows of an American takes on elements of a suspense novel as the various mysteries unfold, but the real question is how we reconcile ourselves to the hard truths in our lives.” —Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald

“The pages turn themselves. The old story, the search for the self, holds water once again.” —Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

“Like all enduring novelists, Hustvedt combines riveting storytelling with philosophical rumination as she dramatizes and contemplates the legacy of sorrows born of the struggles of immigrants and the psychic wounds of war, betrayal, and unrequited love.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

Sylvia Brownrigg
The Sorrows of an American is a thought-provoking book that offers pleasures across many different registers. Hustvedt's descriptions of the immigrant experience and the Minnesota landscape have a spare Scandinavian elegance, while her account of the life of a Brooklyn psychoanalyst feels quietly authentic. She takes unapologetic delight in intellectual characters who understand their lives through far-ranging reading and lively conversation…Hustvedt explored the milieu of New York writers and academics in her last novel, What I Loved—in fact, Leo Hertzberg, that book's art-historian narrator, appears briefly at a dinner party at Inga's apartment—and here again she proves herself a writer deftly able to weave intricate ideas into an intriguing plot.
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
…one of the most profound and absorbing books I've read in a long time. Hustvedt pushes hard on what a novel can do and what a reader can absorb, but once you fall into this captivating story, the experience will make you feel alternately inadequate and brilliant—and finally deeply grateful…This is a radically postmodern novel that wears its po-mo credentials with unusual grace; even at its strangest moments, it never radiates the chilly alienation that marks, say, the work of Hustvedt's husband, Paul Auster. The remarkable conclusion of The Sorrows is a four-page recapitulation of the story's images racing through Erik's mind—and ours. It's a stunning, Joycean demonstration that invites us to impose some sense of meaning on a disparate collection of events, to satisfy our lust for "a world that makes sense." I reached the end emotionally and intellectually exhausted, knowing how much I'll miss this book.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

In her fourth novel (following the acclaimed What I Loved), Hustvedt continues, with grace and aplomb, her exploration of family connectedness, loss, grief and art. Narrator and New York psychoanalyst Erik Davidsen returns to his Minnesota hometown to sort through his recently deceased father Lars's papers. Erik's writer sister, Inga, soon discovers a letter from someone named Lisa that hints at a death that their father was involved in. Over the course of the book, the siblings track down people who might be able to provide information on the letter writer's identity. The two also contend with other looming ghosts. Erik immerses himself in the text of his father's diary as he develops an infatuation with Miranda, a Jamaican artist who lives downstairs with her daughter. Meanwhile, Inga, herself recently widowed, is reeling from potentially damaging secrets being revealed about the personal life of her dead husband, a well-known novelist and screenplay writer. Hustvedt gives great breaths of authenticity to Erik's counseling practice, life in Minnesota and Miranda's Jamaican heritage, and the anticlimax she creates is calming and justified; there's a terrific real-world twist revealed in the acknowledgments. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007Reed Business Information
Library Journal

"Dear Lars, I know you will never ever say nothing about what happened." These words, found in an old letter addressed to his deceased father, shake New York psychoanalyst Erik Davidsen to the core. Was his father once involved in something questionable? Despite the misgivings of his sister, Inga, recently widowed and contending with both a conflicted daughter and a nasty reporter threatening to unburden herself of secrets regarding the duplicity of Inga's celebrated novelist husband, Erik tracks down the truth-which is both stranger and more gratifying than he could have imagined. But this is not a novel about solving mysteries: it's about the secrets we keep and the delicate tangle of relationships we maintain. Even as he sorts out his father's life, Erik must come to terms with his own devastating loneliness and his attraction to his new tenant, Jamaican artist Miranda-who is in turn being stalked, sort of, by her daughter's father. Complex relationships, indeed, but the narrative is breathtakingly clear, heartfelt, and involving. Hustvedt (What I Loved) has written a novel of quiet strength; recommended for most collections.
—Barbara Hoffert

Kirkus Reviews
The death of their father sets a brother and sister on the path to discoveries about their loved ones and themselves. Sifting through Lars Davidsen's papers, son Erik and daughter Inga find an enigmatic note that suggests a dark secret in his past. It's only one of the mysteries about this respected and respectable Minnesota college professor, who sometimes would vanish from his home and walk for hours in the night. Erik and Inga have their own problems. Her husband Max, a famous writer, died five years ago; their daughter Sonia is haunted by recollections of 9/11 (the towers collapsed just blocks from her high school). Erik, a psychiatrist, finds himself entangled in the personal difficulties of Miranda, the new tenant in his Brooklyn brownstone, whose former boyfriend Jeff is leaving on their doorstep invasive, vaguely menacing photos of Miranda and their daughter Eglantine-and of Erik, when Jeff senses his attraction to Miranda. Other elements in the busy plot include Max's affair with an actress now threatening to make his love letters public and the various traumas of Erik's patients. Passages of piercing beauty evoke Lars's hardscrabble past on a Depression-era farm and as a soldier in World War II, as well as the complex bonds of love, guilt, regret and joy that bind families together. But the present-day story is marred by Erik's pat psychiatric insights and improbable plot developments that reach their nadir when the buyer of Max's letters turns out to be Erik's medical school buddy Burton . . . in female drag. Hustvedt (A Pleas for Eros, 2005, etc.) writes spectacular sentences that embody the American experience in brilliantly specific physical imagery. She's already writtenone great novel (What I Loved, 2003), and she'll undoubtedly write more. Here, she stuffs too much material into a narrative that buckles under the weight of too many ideas insufficiently developed. Ambitious, moving and sometimes maddening-but never, ever dull.

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Read an Excerpt

My sister called it “the year of secrets,” but when I look back on it now, I’ve come to understand that it was a time not of what was there, but of what wasn’t. A patient of mine once said, “There are ghosts walking around inside me, but they don’t always talk. Sometimes they have nothing to say.” Sarah squinted or kept her eyes closed most of the time because she was afraid the light would blind her. I think we all have ghosts inside us, and it’s better when they speak than when they don’t. After my father died, I couldn’t talk to him in person anymore, but I didn’t stop having conversations with him in my head. I didn’t stop seeing him in my dreams or stop hearing his words. And yet it was what my father hadn’t said that took over my life for a while—what he hadn’t told us. It turned out that he wasn’t the only person who had kept secrets. On January sixth, four days after his funeral, Inga and I came across the letter in his study.

We had stayed on in Minnesota with our mother to begin tackling the job of sifting through his papers. We knew that there was a memoir he had written in the last years of his life, as well as a box containing the letters he had sent to his parents—many of them from his years as a soldier in the Pacific during World War II—but there were other things in that room we had never seen. My father’s study had a particular smell, one slightly different from the rest of the house. I wondered if all the cigarettes he’d smoked and the coffee he’d drunk and the rings those endless cups had left on the desk over forty years had acted upon the atmosphere of that room to produce the unmistakable odor that hit me when I walked through the door. The house is sold now. A dental surgeon bought it and did extensive renovations, but I can still see my father’s study with its wall of books, the filing cabinets, the long desk he had built himself, and the plastic organizer on it, which despite its transparency had small handwritten labels on every drawer—“Paper Clips,” “Hearing Aid Batteries,” “Keys to the Garage,” “Erasers.”

The day Inga and I began working, the weather outside was heavy. Through the large window, I looked at the thin layer of snow under an iron-colored sky. I could feel Inga standing behind me and hear her breathing. Our mother, Marit, was sleeping, and my niece, Sonia, had curled up somewhere in the house with a book. As I pulled open a file drawer, I had the abrupt thought that we were about to ransack a man’s mind, dismantle an entire life, and without warning a picture of the cadaver I had dissected in medical school came to mind, its chest cavity gaping open as it lay on the table. One of my lab partners, Roger Abbot, had called the body Tweedledum, Dum Dum, or just Dum. “Erik, get a load of Dum’s ventricle. Hypertrophy, man.” For an instant I imagined my father’s collapsed lung inside him, and then I remembered his hand squeezing mine hard before I left his small room in the nursing home the last time I saw him alive. All at once, I felt relieved he had been cremated.

Lars Davidsen’s filing system was an elaborate code of letters, numbers, and colors devised to allow for a descending hierarchy within a single category. Initial notes were subordinate to first drafts, first drafts to final drafts, and so on. It wasn’t only his years of teaching and writing that were in those drawers, but every article he had written, every lecture he had given, the voluminous notes he had taken, and the letters he had received from colleagues and friends over the course of more than sixty years. My father had catalogued every tool that had ever hung in the garage, every receipt for the six used cars he had owned in his lifetime, every lawnmower, and every home appliance—the extensive documentation of a long and exceptionally frugal history. We discovered a list for itemized storage in the attic: children’s skates, baby clothes, knitting materials. In a small box, I found a bunch of keys. Attached to them was a label on which my father had written in his small neat hand: “Unknown Keys.”

We spent days in that room with large black garbage bags, dumping hundreds of Christmas cards, grade books, and innumerable inventories of things that no longer existed. My niece and mother mostly avoided the room. Wired to a Walkman, Sonia ambled through the house, read Wallace Stevens, and slept in the comatose slumber that comes so easily to adolescents. From time to time she would come in to us and pat her mother on the shoulder or wrap her long thin arms around Inga’s shoulders to show silent support before she floated into another room. I had been worried about Sonia ever since her father died five years earlier. I remembered her standing in the hallway outside his hospital room, her face strangely impassive, her body stiffened against the wall, and her skin so white it made me think of bones. I know that Inga tried to hide her grief from Sonia, that when her daughter was at school my sister would turn on music, lie down on the floor, and wail, but I had never seen Sonia give in to sobs, and neither had her mother. Three years later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Inga and Sonia had found themselves running north with hundreds of other people as they fled Stuyvesant High School, where Sonia was a student. They were just blocks from the burning towers, and it was only later that I discovered what Sonia had seen from her schoolroom window. From my house in Brooklyn that morning, I saw only smoke.

When she wasn’t resting, our mother wandered from room to room, drifting around like a sleepwalker. Her determined but light step was no heavier than in the old days, but it had slowed. She would check on us, offer food, but she rarely crossed the threshold. The room must have reminded her of my father’s last years. His worsening emphysema shrank his world in stages. Near the end, he could barely walk anymore and kept mostly to the twelve by sixteen feet of the study. Before he died, he had separated the most important papers, which were now stored in a neat row of boxes beside his desk. It was in one of these containers that Inga found the letters from women my father had known before my mother. Later, I read every word they had written to him—a trio of premarital loves—a Margaret, a June, and a Lenore, all of whom wrote fluent but tepid letters signed “Love” or “With love” or “Until next time.”

Inga’s hands shook when she found the bundles. It was a tremor I had been familiar with since childhood, not related to an illness but to what my sister called her wiring. She could never predict an onset. I had seen her lecture in public with quiet hands, and I had also seen her give talks when they trembled so violently she had to hide them behind her back. After withdrawing the three bunches of letters from the long-lost but once-desired Margaret, June, and Lenore, Inga pulled out a single sheet of paper, looked down at it with a puzzled expression, and without saying anything handed it to me.

The letter was dated June 27, 1937. Beneath the date, in a large childish hand, was written: “Dear Lars, I know you will never ever say nothing about what happened. We swore it on the BIBLE. It can’t matter now she’s in heaven or to the ones here on earth. I believe in your promise. Lisa.”

“He wanted us to find it,” Inga said. “If not, he would have destroyed it. I showed you those journals with the pages torn out of them.” She paused. “Have you ever heard of Lisa?”

“No,” I said. “We could ask Mamma.”

Inga answered me in Norwegian, as if the subject of our mother demanded that we use her first language. “Nei, Jei vil ikke forstyrre henne med dette.” (No, I won’t bother her with this.) “I’ve always felt,” she continued, “that there were things Pappa kept from Mamma and us, especially about his childhood. He was fifteen then. I think they’d already lost the forty acres of the farm, and unless I’m wrong, it was the year after Grandpa found out his brother David was dead.” My sister looked down at the piece of pale brown paper. “‘It can’t matter now she’s in heaven or to the ones here on earth.’ Somebody died.” She swallowed loudly. “Poor Pappa, swearing on the Bible.”

Copyright © 2008 by Siri Hustvedt. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Siri Hustvedt was born in 1955 in Northfield, Minnesota. She has a Ph.D. from Columbia University in English literature and is the internationally acclaimed author of several novels, The Sorrows of an American, What I Loved, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, The Blindfold, and The Summer Without Men, as well as a growing body of nonfiction, including Living, Thinking, Looking, A Plea for Eros, and Mysteries of the Rectangle, and an interdisciplinary investigation of the body and mind in The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves. She has given lectures on artists and theories of art at the Prado, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. In 2011, she delivered the thirty-ninth annual Freud Lecture in Vienna. She lives in Brooklyn.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
February 19, 1955
Place of Birth:
Northfield, Minnesota
B.A. in history, St. Olaf College; Ph.D. in English, Columbia University

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Sorrows of an American 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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I'm delighted to say this book won't be passed around as some light beach read, it's for the sophisticated reader who realizes loss and death are part of the puzzle that makes us human. The intricate detail and Minnesota references were tenderly appreciated. Some who have lost a parent will understand the issues of questions because even after the journey to find the answers we still don't know and that is okay. This book redefined my expectations for writing excellence and the bar is high.