Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, February 8, 2009
RANDOM ACTS OF HEROIC LOVE
By Danny Scheinmann
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 388 pp. $24.95
Readers in England rely on Richard and Judy the way readers in America obey Oprah. Or at least they used to. Since switching to a digital channel last fall, the British talk show hosts have seen their viewership ratings plummet from more than 2 million to just 12,000. Richard and Judy's sudden invisibility could have a negative effect on publishing because for the past four years this shiny married couple has moved more books that any other force in England. Last summer, the (London) Sunday Times estimated that the R&J Book Club accounted for 26 percent of the sales of the top 100 books in the UK.
I've just finished reading two of their recommended titles -- recently released in the United States -- and I'm not convinced that the demise of the R&J Book Club would be an altogether bad development for the British reading public. Toni Jordan's Addition, reviewed in this space last week, is a slickly witty romance about obsessive compulsive disorder that concludes with a trite celebration of mental illness. And now comes Danny Scheinmann's muddled Random Acts of Heroic Love, which, with Richard and Judy's imprimatur, has sold 200,000 copies in England.
The title of Random Acts of Heroic Love is a fair indication of its overwrought content as it moves back and forth between two doomed love stories. The first one opens in 1992, when a grad student named Leo Deakin wakes up in an Ecuadorian hospital and discovers that he has survived a bus accident that killed his girlfriend, Eleni. He's uncontrollably distraught at her loss, and for the next few hundred pages we follow his descent into a fit of sorrow that all but immobilizes him -- and the novel.
Grief is hard to endure, maybe even harder to read about. It's static and repetitive and (sorry) dull for outsiders. Elizabeth Strout's Abide With Me is the best novel about grief that I've read recently, and of course Joan Didion's memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, conveys the gripping intensity of staring into the abyss. But Scheinmann's hero lacks the emotional depth of Didion or of Strout's protagonist. Instead, Leo grieves in the way a young man would: in a long, mawkish wail of self-pity tinged with guilt and New Age goo: "They clung on to each other across the frontier of death, magically transcending all that is intangible, invisible, unknown." For all its ardor, that sentence can't endure even a moment's serious consideration. And there are so many more sentences like it: At Eleni's gravesite, Leo thinks, "Their adventure had separated them, but she was still ploughing on, travelling through the hidden world, deeper than he could go, a forester into the unknown. Now they were like the sea and the moon, far apart but still in harmony. When his life was done their time would come again and when it did there would be no more hurdles between them, they would dance as one for ever. What is life but a holiday sandwiched by eternity?" Don't answer that.
Leo grows more tiresome when he gets back home to England and mopes around, trying to restart his graduate research on ants. "Hovering in a void," facing "an eternity of emptiness," he's drawn to the spacey ideas of a charismatic physics professor who pronounces diluted principles of quantum mechanics like a series of self-help affirmations: "You are literally made of stardust," the professor tells his students. "If you see yourself as a vital part of a holistic universe then any battle is ultimately against yourself. . . . We are each a small piece of infinity and in some form or other we will live for eternity."
Sprinkled throughout the book are pages from Leo's diary, containing his reflections on eternal love, lost and found, the kind of private gems you would rather die than have anyone else read, e.g.: "I love you my sweety,/From your head to your feety,/From here to Haiti." Fortunately, he also includes a number of photographs of animals mating, which at least provides the novel with a little authentic passion.
Far better is the other, older story that repeatedly interrupts Leo's but, alas, never overtakes it. On his deathbed in 1938 a Polish Jew named Moritz Daniecki describes the epic journey he took during World War I. Soon after falling in love with Lotte, a wealthy girl in his town, Moritz was drafted and dispatched to fight the Russians, who quickly captured him and sent him to Siberia. That's just the start of a five-year ordeal that involved shockingly bloody battles and walking thousands of miles, frequently alone, usually sick, always cold and hungry, as Moritz was buffeted about by the map-changing conflicts of world war and then the Russian revolution. Only his love for Lotte kept him alive during this harrowing adventure, but through it all he didn't even know if she had survived or remembered him. The brutality he endured makes Leo's whininess seem all the more tedious by comparison.
In the last pages of the novel, a deus ex machina finally announces the connection between these two love stories and spells out the moral for us, but sadly the journey is not worth the destination. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.