Astral (Review)

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The Astral
Kate Christensen, 2011
320 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
November 2011

At the center of this book's cover* is a guy on a bicycle surrounded by a vacant stretch of pavement. Presuming the figure represents Harry Quirk, the novel's protagonist, it's a clever metaphor for the predicament Harry finds himself in.

Harry's a guy who weaves and bobs his way through the byways of Brooklyn, in other words, through life itself. No straight line to where he's going: it's a meandering, crooked path. Not to worry though, Harry finally reaches his destination. The joy of this book is Harry himself and Brooklyn, New York—its byways and waterways, sidewalks and bars...and the quirky creatures who inhabit all of it.

Let me be right up front. This is the kind of book that may not appeal to all. It's a sort of writerly book, by which I mean that perhaps the writing appeals to other writers. It's slow, its about characters not plot, and the texture of the prose, like the streets of the boro, is grainy, even gritty. Yet The Astral is so good. It reminded me of Richard Ford's brilliant Lay of the Land.

So...back to our hero. Poor Harry. He's been tossed out of his beloved home in The Astral by his mercurial wife, Luz, who is certain, beyond a doubt, that Harry is having an affair. To top it off, even their cozy circle of friends sees Luz as the Aggrieved and Harry the Philanderer.

When the book opens, Harry is living in a flop house, dejected and degraded. The story revolves around his attempts—his obsession, really—to prove his innocence and get back into Luz's good graces. Then there is the couple's children: Karina, a "freegan" dumpster diver, and Hector, a Christian involved in a strange religious cult. So much to deal with!

Kate Christensen is a wonderful writer, whose nack for striking characterization brings the beings of her novel to life. And her insights into middle-aging, the sense of creeping loss—and surprise at that loss, as it's happening to you!—is spot on. She's both funny and poignant.

In a way, this is what you might call a "coming-of-adult-age" story. Harry's wandering destination allows him to explore his life choices and his devotion to Luz. Perhaps, he thinks, he was never truly present for her. Perhaps, he thinks, that's typical of many husbands: they're never fully present for their spouses.

This is a lovely novel, an intimate, yet humorous, portrait of a grown-up family in crisis...yet a family who still clings to the bonds of love and loyalty. I think book clubs would have wonderful discussions about who is right...and who is not so right.

See our Reading Guide for The Astral.

* This is the hardcover edition.

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