Tuesday, February 14, 2012

{read: a love story} The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block

By chance, this was the fourth novel I'd read in a row that might be characterized as a love story. (The others were Vaclav & Lena, To Be Sung Underwater, and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand -- all excellent.) This is a much darker book than any of those. Stefan Merrill Block writes a fictionalized account of his grandparents, Katharine and Frederick, and of their struggle to maintain a marriage through Frederick's manic depressive episodes. After flashing some old ladies late one night, the latest in a long string of drunken, inappropriate episodes, Katharine agrees that instead of going to jail, Frederick should be committed to the famous Mayflower Home insane asylum so he can get well. Alternate chapters detail this time in their lives from the views of Katharine and Frederick.

Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!, has a blurb on the book's jacket that I think captures the essence of the book: "To get at truths that are almost unbearable: that love can fail, that a mind can immolate, and that language can sometimes leave us lonelier than our original silence."

This is a powerful, dark book about mental illness, love, and trying to make the life that you thought you could have. Yet when it comes to fictionalized accounts of grandparents' lives, I prefer City of Thieves by David Benioff, and when it comes to Block's work, I prefer his first novel, The Story of Forgetting. I think the storytelling in both of those is more fluid and compelling, and I found the characters more interesting. This isn't to say that Katharine and Frederick aren't complex as they wrestle with their own demons and try to figure out how to live, together or apart. Block continues to explore the impact of mental illness on relationships and families, and I can't wait to see what he writes next.

The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block (Random House Publishing, 2011)
My rating: 3 stars

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