Praise for The Absent Hand
A Big Other Most Anticipated Small Press Book of the Year
"In an elegant series of essays, New Yorker contributor Lessard (The Architect of Desire) explores the American landscape as a metaphor for recent shifts in the national consciousness . . . Throughout, Lessard offers an extraordinary way of examining and understanding the aesthetics of different environments, whether urban, suburban, or bucolic, which will inspire readers to look with new curiosity at the places around them." Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Of beach plums, ramps, and Ramada Inns: a quietly sensitive, eminently sensible consideration of the landscapes of our lives . . . A gift." Kirkus Reviews
"The Absent Hand is like no other book I have read, narrated by a writer whose perceptions and language are as radically original as they are eloquent. Observed with a gentle irony, an abiding lyricism, and an acute sense of the comfortable pieties we live by, Suzannah Lessard's hybrid creationpart memoir, part history, part literary criticism, and part sociological documentis an elegy to the all-but-lost power of landscape. Whether commenting on an abandoned but still vibrant village in the Hudson River Valley, 'suburbaphobia' among the educated elite, the 'peculiar stillness' of Sheraton hotel rooms, or the complex artifice of the Disney vision, The Absent Hand explores the way we inhabit the space around us, physically as well as mentally, individually as well as collectively. It is a wise as well as poignant book, leavened by flashes of humorone that will make you think about the bargains we have made with our natural surroundings and the price we have paid for them." Daphne Merkin, author of This Close to Happy
"Suzannah Lessard has a truly penetrating intelligence, and here she turns it on a truly compelling target: the landscape that surrounds us, and which we too often see as background if we see it at all. Reading this book will, no kidding, let you look at the world in a new way, and that is a remarkable gift." Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
"One of Suzannah Lessard's great gifts is that of seeing, of discerning and explaining the details most of us skip past. She is also gifted at conveying this precise view. Everyone who reads this book will see the American landscape differently, in its urban and rural variety and splendor and disrepair. Readers will also have a clearer appreciation for what is beautiful and whyand of how the unlovely might be restored." James Fallows, coauthor of Our Towns
"The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape is a place-based book in the deepest sense. Lessard's keen observations about selected landscapes in which she has thoroughly immersed herself in order to parse their broader underlying meanings ranks her style with Thoreau's experiential mode of writing. The book is pitch-perfect and filled with cogent philosophical interpretations, a loving and shrewd appraisal of the physical fabric of our once- and still-beautiful but fraught country." Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, president of the Foundation for Landscape Studies
Praise for The Architect of Desire
A National Bestseller
A New York Times Notable Book of The Year in 1996
“Few writers have ever captured the exquisite, delicate balance of architecture and memory as eloquently and as movingly . . . In the end this book is about the loss of innocence, innocence about art as much as about life, and while its memories are sad and painful, it is a paean to passion. ––Paul Goldberger, The New York Times Book Review
“An extraordinary memoir. The emotional force of [Lessard’s] final revelation is so powerful that to describe it here would be like giving away the ending of a mystery thriller.” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, New York Times
“The patterns she detects in his life and architecture –– 'harmony with chaos underneath,' an 'atmosphere of joy trapped in silence, with catastrophe latent,' 'the whirlwind in the calm' –– she also sees in her family's life and her own.” ––Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post
“Powerful...Seductive...Lessard’s The Architect of Desire is a turbulent, highly textured memoir.” ––Elle
“An austerely beautiful, one-of-a-kind exorcism.” ––Newsday
“A haunting family history.” ––San Francisco Chronicle
“In this inventive hybrid format part social history, part intergenerational chronicle, part personal memoir [Lessard] ties together the truth of her family’s strong and strange history (a strangeness scarcely spoken about among clan members) by pulling on threads of aesthetic sensitivity and sexual perversity that weave from generation to generation. Lessard writes beautifully, compassionately, with the soft precision of a poet, but her story is a harsh one, and she doesn’t shield herself from difficult scrutiny, either.” Entertainment Weekly
“In the beauty and terror of her prose, [Lessard] gives form to a century of hidden experience, puts words to a century of silence… Language, too, has an architectural dimension. In the right hands, it can span vast, uncharted regions of time and place. And this edifice… is Lessard’s gift to her readers.” The Boston Sunday Globe
“Suzannah Lessard's memoir assembles the beautiful wreckage of a family obsessed, from generation to generation, with art, class and female flesh. …[S]he transforms her family romance into a much larger vision of desire.” ––Los Angeles Times
“CAPTIVATING...A POWERFUL STORY… both well-paced and deftly written… [Lessard] has a true gift for capturing the power of architecture and the meaning that lie behind it.” Portland Oregonian
“Dizzying literary brilliance...a literate, cerebral memoir.” ––Hartford courant
“This is a magnificent book. Cathedral-like in form, heroic as to emotional content, it will stand as one of the great spiritual autobiographies of a generation.” ––Kennedy Fraser, author of Ornament and Silence
“When a writer as gifted as Lessard makes her debut with a memoir as candid, perceptive and wrenchingly affecting as this history of her family, it is a signal event… The Architect of Desire is both a triumph for her and a resonating experience for her readers.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Winner of the 1995 Whiting Award and a staff writer for the New Yorker, Lessard is both precise and lyrical, and her disquieting family history is redolent with the hypocrisy of the Gilded Age, rich with descriptions of White's aggressively seductive architecture, and charged by the noble if painful effort of breaking the soul-smothering silence that has plagued her family for so long.” ––Donna Seaman, Booklist
Of beach plums, ramps, and Ramada Inns: a quietly sensitive, eminently sensible consideration of the landscapes of our lives.
Lessard (The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family, 1996), a writer and editor for the New Yorker and Washington Monthly, respectively, is a collector of places—and, she writes, she is amazed by people who aren't, as when she observes "how indifferent air passengers are to the view out the window." Some views are perhaps a little cheerless, such as the industrial wastelands of Ohio or the battlefield at Gettysburg. Some are stunning, and all shape the people who live in them without being aggressively assertive about it, as with the New York village in which she finds "something modestly, collectively triumphant," namely, a shared sense of belonging. Landscape, writes the author, incorporates layers of meaning that lie close to the "hidden springs of personhood," joining families and histories to the world. No matter how difficult some of those landscapes may be, from broken urban neighborhoods to abandoned cemeteries, the meaning is there to be sought out. Lessard usually finds something to like, or at least to point out, about the places she brings up for consideration. One good example is Wall Street, where she logged time as a young worker in a financial world "in which women especially were relegated to a lower order"—no problem, really, inasmuch as she was busy absorbing the place and its glorious and messy chaos. The overall feel of the book, which blends poetic reverie with deeply learned geography and history, is friendly if just on the edge of being too much, of becoming encyclopedic. Still, you've got to like a narrative that includes a search for an elusive Staten Island landfill that ends in unlikely self-discovery: "You felt lonely just looking at it, as if you hadn't spoken to another human being in months, years maybe."
A pleasant hodgepodge of observations on many places, all of them made more interesting than they perhaps really are—and that's quite a gift.