June 2007

Jean Peck

fiction

The Whole World Over by Julia Glass

In Julia Glass’s novel, The Whole World Over, her main characters connect, disconnect, move out, move on, hook up, run away, find themselves, find their dogs, raise children, pine for children, marry, re-evaluate, and finally, rejoice and celebrate the lives and choices they have made.

At the center of this 509-page novel are Greenie and Alan Duquette, who have been married for 10 years. They live in Greenwich Village with a four-year-old son, George, the center of their universe. Not all is well with the marriage, though: Greenie, a pastry chef, is enlarging her clientele and her repertoire; Alan, a psychotherapist, is watching his patient base dwindle. Ironically, Alan works mostly with the relationship-impaired, yet he cannot seem to find the source of his own marriage’s ennui. When Greenie is offered a job as chef for the governor of New Mexico, she decides to take her son George to Santa Fe and see where this new twist in her career path will lead her. Husband Alan remains in New York, sulking. The survival of their marriage, the emotional health of this little family, the commitments they must finally make to the future, are the gravitational force of the story.

Orbiting the lives of Greenie and Alan is Walter, a restaurant owner, to whom Greenie sells her pastries and in whose bistro the New Mexico governor is seduced by Greenie’s coconut cake. Walter is smitten with Gordie who has just broken up with his partner, Stephen, who desperately wants to adopt a child. Both Gordie and Stephen had come to Alan, the psychotherapist, for help with the issues surrounding parenthood. Stephen continues seeking Alan’s counsel after the separation from Gordie.

Included in the mix, yet not quite of it, is Saga, who several years earlier suffered some brain damage in a freak accident. Saga, of course, has her own story. She is an adjunct to a large and quarreling family who sees her as a drain on her primary caretaker and an obstacle to the money that would be gained from the sale of a family home that she and her ailing uncle occupy. Her frail infrastructure leads her to befriend the defenseless, including abandoned animals that she seeks to shelter. Sleeping rough one night, she awakens groggily, and stumbles to a Village bookshop run by Fenno McLeod, an emissary from Glass’s previous novel, The Three Junes, winner of the National Book Award in 2002. Fenno, too, is connected to the main characters by New York geography. His Bank Street bookstore is the hub where the lives of Alan, Walter, and Saga intersect.

Minor characters, too numerous to mention, but whose motivations, foibles, and quirks lend weight to the lives of Alan and Greenie, Walter and Fenno, and Saga, weave in and out, yet Glass is adroit enough that the reader ends up interested in their fates, but not let down when their stories have less satisfactory conclusions than those of the main characters. Perhaps like Fenno McLeod, Saga’s relatives, Walter’s nephew, and Alan’s patients, Gordie and Stephen, will turn up in a future Glass novel.

In this one, the horrors of 9/11, so central to the New York world of these characters, force them to sort out what is important to their lives; after the towers collapse, Glass’s characters instinctively repair and construct the kinds of relationships that will keep them safe in the Age of Terror. Every trivial worry falls away, and only what is essential manages to survive.

Glass writes in long, lavish sentences, using just a few more adverbs and exclamation points than is necessary. Her paragraphs often conclude with one more thought in parentheses in order to give the character more than the last word. Still, the chapters unfold like flowers blooming in slow motion, as if to give the reader enough time to become immersed in this tightly crafted universe.

Yet, this universe is not perfect, but nor is the one on which it is modeled. Still, the reader might want to know why Greenie has no girlfriends to confide in or why the childhood friend with whom she has an affair describes her mother as a monster, when the woman appears no more monstrous than any of our mothers. Why does Greenie let Alan take their son back to New York without a fight? Why don’t we hear the conversation that takes place when Greenie asked Alan for a divorce?

Perhaps Glass feels that we’ve heard it all before. Despite these quibbles, The Whole World Over is a dynamic read, a book that is finally tragic, redeeming, and, ultimately, gratifying.

The Whole World Over by Julia Glass
Pantheon
ISBN 0375422749
509 Pages