I’ve always had a soft spot for Tom Robbins, and I was pretty interested in what might happen to the main character. But God help me, I couldn’t sit through 415 pages of tangential rantings on the part of an egomaniacal CIA agent who has an inappropriate relationship with his 16 year old stepsister. Actually, it was the underage stepsister that really got me; a 32 year old white guy who thinks he knows more than anybody else is something for which I’ve kind of built up a tolerance.
I have no idea what happened at the end of this book. The conclusion was so intentionally murky that I didn’t get it at all. Plot, however, is not really the point of this novel. It’s all about atmosphere and repressed emotion.
That makes it easy to synopsize: Sunny is head nurse at Suvanto, a hospital in rural Finland that caters, in part, to a clientele of wealthy not-sick but not-well women. These “up-patients,” so called because they live on the top floor of the building, are in many cases there to hide out from life as much as to recover from illness. Sunny herself is hiding out, having fled the United States (I think) soon after the protracted death of her mother.
There is no indication of what is going on in the world outside. In fact, I have only the vaguest idea of when the story takes place. I originally thought it was the 1940′s, but then decided it was more like the twenties… or thirties? There is no mention of war, which usually provides an anchor for novels set in the first half of the 20th century, particularly in Europe. If the characters are between wars, they don’t ever mention the one that’s past. Likewise, personal details about all of the characters are shrouded, hinted at, and sometimes revealed in intriguing but frustratingly brief nuggets.
In contrast, both the setting and present events are told in beautiful detail. I have such vivid pictures in my mind of the hospital hallways, the patients, the rooms. Corny as it sounds, I can feel the heat of the sauna, and hear the rare muffled sounds of the forest in the snow. Reading this book is a profoundly sensory experience.
If one wanted to escape, an island off the coast of Finland might be the best place to do it. The language is extremely hard to master, the people private in the extreme, and it’s dark a whole lot of the time. A huge hospital in a remote ice-locked bay seems like a setting for an intensely spooky story. There is one creepy event near the end, but for the most part the disturbing stuff is all internal.
Each personal story is tinged with a sense of the difficulty of being a woman. Some characters are pushed into being caretakers, some mildly abused by the men in their lives, others scared of sexuality. Ultimately, the up-patients create a catty society of one-upmanship that is not unlike a high school clique, while Sunny, the outsider, flees from a chance at real friendship. All of this is gently blanketed by the calm daily routine of the hospital, just as the footprints of miscreants are covered with the deep winter snow.
Note to self: next time read John Dufresne on vacation! His novels have so many well-drawn characters, all of whom are connected through odd circumstances. As it was, reading a little bit a day, I found myself leafing back through the book several times, trying to remember who they all were, and how they were related.
The novel, much like his later Requiem, Mass., rattles along at breakneck speed, scattering colorful details and random erudition in its wake. This is a very funny book, which veers fearlessly into tragedy. I am reminded of Larry McMurtry, another author who is not afraid to kill off absolutely any character, and usually just as you’ve come to love them.
Billy Wayne Fontana is the last of a cursed tribe. The Fontana clan runs exclusively to male progeny, who are often deformed at birth, and rarely make it to childbearing age. Which may be just as well, considering the trouble they get themselves into as adults. As the last living Fontana, it looks as though Billy Wayne may have escaped the family fate. He is almost done with seminary when he meets Earlene deBastrop, and his life veers into maelstrom of love and expectation.
Much of this book is taken up with the question of whether one can avoid one’s fate, and the corollary question, do our expectations determine the trajectory of our lives? I got a little bogged down with Billy Wayne’s travels down this road. Mostly, he seems to have avoided acting on many of his good impulses. The resulting downward spiral belies the hopeful beginning, which should probably come as no surprise, given the narrator’s dire predictions.
I do think I might have enjoyed this novel more had I read it more quickly; unfinished books eventually become tiresome. It is funny, fast-paced, and filled with memorable characters.