289 pp. W. W. Norton & Company
Well, here’s a strange thing. I liked all the parts of this book. It’s four stories in eight chapters, all connected (ostensibly) by a large desk. Except maybe not. I have to confess that I had a hard time keeping the timeline straight and a hard time figuring out who was who. And one story -- the story of the widowed Aaron and his two sons -- seems to stand on its own. Whatever connection (if any) that it had with said desk eludes me now.
The story starts out in 1972 when Nadia, a self-absorbed and lonely writer, comes into possession of the desk. Its owner, one Daniel Varsky, a Chilean poet, is returning to Chile and needs the desk and some other furniture to have a temporary home.
Twenty-seven years later, Leah Weisz turns up and asks for the desk. Leah is purportedly the daughter of Daniel Varsky and even looks like him. Varsky died many years before at the hands of the military junta in Chile and Leah wants the desk as a rememberance.
Having given up the desk, Nadia finds that she’s unable to write and flys to Jerusalem to re-unite with the desk or to find out why it is that she is now unable to write. While there, she becomes infatuated with a young man who look just like Daniel Varsky.
Interspersed in these stories are the stories of Lotte Berg and her husband who live in London. In 1970 Lotte gave the desk to Daniel Varsky because ... well, I’m not sure why. Her husband is at the same time concerned about why Lotte gave the desk to Daniel V. and who she got it from in the first place. And there’s also the story of Aaron, mentioned above. And the story of Isabel who falls in love with Yoav Weisz, brother of Leah Weisz. All of this is very well written -- beautifully written, in fact -- and there are some wonderful meditations on loss and choice and on loneliness, a feeling that pervades this book.
But somehow, the thing doesn’t hang together. The whole story of the desk as a unifying element between the stories of these people doesn’t hold up for me. The connections feel contrived, the rationale for much of the action feels unlikely, and some of the behavior is just bizarre. And there’s a peculiar homogeneity of voice. It seems as if all of the characters are speaking with the voice of the writer. The New York writer, the Liverpudlian housewife, the Israeli doctor all sound the same.
That all said, there is much merit in the different parts of the book and I’m very glad I read it. But it did feel more like a collection of short stories than a novel.