From Jane Hamilton, author of the beloved New York Times bestsellers A Map of the World and The Book of Ruth, comes a warmly humorous, poignant novel about a young man, his mother's e-mail, and the often surprising path of infidelity.Henry Shaw, a high school senior, is about as comfortable with his family as any seventeen-year-old can be. His father, Kevin, teaches history with a decidedly socialist tinge at the Chicago private school Henry and his sister attend. His mother, Beth, who plays the piano in a group specializing in antique music, is a loving, attentive wife and parent. Henry even accepts the offbeat behavior of his thirteen-year-old sister, Elvira, who is obsessed with Civil War reenactments and insists on dressing in handmade Union uniforms at inopportune times.
Credit Hamilton with courage, virtuosity and a remarkable ability to reflect inner lives. Her first novel, The Book of Ruth, was the unsparing story of a girl trapped in woeful circumstances; the protagonist of her second, The Map of the World, was a woman responsible for a child's death; the narrator of The Short History of a Prince was a gay man. Here she again explores family bonds and tensions, the demands of sexuality and the ethics of betrayal (not an oxymoron)Dthis time from the point of view of a teenager who discovers that his mother is having an affair. Henry Shaw is a high school senior when he intercepts e-mail messages between his mother, Beth, a musician and specialist in ancient music, and violin maker Richard Pollico. As he secretly eavesdrops on the liaison between "Liza38" and "Rpol," Henry's emotions, ranging from horror to fear of abandonment to rage to deep sadness, take on a new dimension when he himself falls in love with a girl he meets in summer camp. Meanwhile, his generally bemused and patient father, Kevin, a high school history teacher, seems unaware of Beth's infidelity, since he spends much of his time coaching Henry's rebellious sister, Elvira, 13, who is obsessed with her desire to join a Civil War reenactment disguised as a boy. A mirror image of A Short History's protagonist, Walter, at the same age, Elvira displays an unhappiness with her gender that causes stress in the Shaw's marriage. As she has amply demonstrated before, Hamilton knows the nuances of domestic relationships and the landscape of teenage uncertainty. Henry's voice is exactly right: he's a thoughtful, intelligent boy whose hormones are sending him confusing messages, and whose tendency is to mock both parents with typical teen sardonic humor. Henry's funny quips are actually quite sad, because they mask his sorrow at the severing of his close bond with his mother, and his discomfort at secretly being aware of her illicit passion. Beth's joyous reaction to physical love and her anguish at how her behavior, if revealed, might affect her family, are likewise rendered with compassion. In a miracle of empathy, Hamilton manages to grant psychological validity to all the members of this ordinary-seeming but emotionally distracted family, and to strike the reader's heart with her tender evocation of both human fallibility and our ability to recover from heartbreaking choices. Author tour. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 31, 2000
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Excerpt from Disobedience by Jane Hamilton
Reading someone else's e-mail is a quiet, clean enterprise. There is no pitter-pattering around the room, no opening and closing the desk drawers, no percussive creasing as you draw the paper from the envelope and unfold it. There is no sound but the melody of the dial-up, the purity of the following Gregorian tones, and the sweet nihilistic measure of static. The brief elemental vibration that means contact. And then nothing. No smudge of ink, no greasy thumbprint left behind. In and out of the files, no trace. It could be the work of a ghost, this electronic eavesdropping.
I was the boy in the family and therefore, statistically, the person most likely to seize upon the computer culture, the child to wire the household, tune it into our century, keep the two systems, one for me, the other for the rest of the Shaws, up and running. Elvira, my sister, was detail oriented and analytical and could have easily outdistanced me if only she'd had the desire. She had the intelligence, certainly, to learn complex languages, to program, to hack. But through most of the time I was living at home she was scornful of technology, stuck, as she was, in 1862 with her Civil War infantry regiment, the 11th Illinois. At a young age, much to my mother's sorrow, Elvira became a hardcore Civil War reenactor.
It was I who begged and moped a little and pleaded for some kind of computer, a dud, a two-or three-year-old dinosaur -- anything would do. I built myself a cardboard replica of the first Macintosh model, and for a good half hour at a stretch I lay on my bed typing on the paper keys, pretending to write programs that would win me fame and fortune. When I was nine, I appealed to my grandmother in a simple poor-boy letter: my grandmother, the one money bag we all in our particular ways went to, again and again, a source that seemed inexhaustible and at the ready. When the box arrived on our doorstep, I sat patiently with my parents showing them the fundamental maneuvers -- dragging the mouse, clicking the mouse, see Mommy and Daddy double-click the mouse -- as if the two of them were babies being prodded through an ordinary developmental stage.
Several years later with my own money, I seriously upgraded. I had to lure my mother to her own e-mail account with the promise that she'd have satisfaction and even happiness. It was still early days for the kind of communication we now take for granted. Wizard that I was, I guaranteed her pleasure. I provided the password for her so she could commune with her musician friends, the hip ones, so she could have her circle of intimates right in front of her without having to go down to the end of the town.