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Life, Death and Life

By Wendy Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 21, 2009

AFTER YOU'VE GONE

By Jeffrey Lent

Atlantic. 249 pp. $24

Ever since his breathtakingly beautiful first novel, "In the Fall," was published in 2000, it's been clear that Jeffrey Lent is not just a formidably accomplished writer but a vaultingly ambitious one as well. He continued to crisscross American history and plumb the human heart in "Lost Nation" (2002) and "A Peculiar Grace" (2007). Neither was as perfectly modulated as his brilliant debut, but both featured the same gorgeous prose, searching intelligence and keen understanding of our tangled attachments to the past and each other. Those qualities are again evident in Lent's latest work, perhaps the saddest story he's yet told.

In the fall of 1922, 55-year-old Henry Dorn is living in Amsterdam and learning to play the cello. Eighteen months earlier, his wife, Olivia, and son, Robert, were killed in a car crash, possibly because Robert was "drunk and doped and driving his own mother and going too fast," as Henry bitterly puts it. Returning from World War I wounded and addicted to morphine, Robert had caused the only serious breach in the Dorns' long, loving marriage. Now, Henry must live with the memory of his wife upbraiding him, not long before her death, "How did he fail you? When? Better to ask yourself how you failed him and still do. You assail him at every opportunity. . . . I'm sorry to say this Henry but you've disappointed me."

As the narrative excavates the jumbled layers of Henry's past, the magnitude of his bereavement becomes apparent. Few people write as well as Lent about the sexual and emotional fulfillment of great love: We see that Henry and Olivia were as happy together as two people can be over the course of 30 years, that he's come to Holland (from which his ancestors emigrated centuries ago) because their home in New York's Finger Lakes region is unbearable without her, and that he's taken up the cello because his wife's piano playing forged one of their closest bonds. ("While she played," Lent writes, "he would rest one hand against the small of her back as he loomed gentle, her page-turner, her husband and lover.")

We also see, in vignettes of Henry's childhood in Nova Scotia, that he has prior knowledge of harsh, unforgiving parents and men who fail to measure up. As always, Lent's specificity with dates and places roots his characters' personal odysseys in palpable historical reality.

Henry's past forms the backdrop to his affair in Amsterdam with Lydia Pearce, whom he meets on the Atlantic crossing. It's a measure of how sensitively Lent constructs this scenario that we're not shocked by the relationship coming so soon after Olivia's death. Henry has been acquainted with "the unpredictability of life" since he was a little boy, and we realize that he is a man who moves forward.

Lydia, the wary survivor of two brutally truncated romances, is not sure she's ready to move beyond the warm companionship she and Henry enjoy in Amsterdam. Yet she's drawn to him by his ease with her independent, unconventional nature. He's receptive when she introduces him to a new kind of music (jazz), and he's unfazed -- indeed, aroused -- when she takes him to a cabaret. The author tenderly portrays two seasoned, rueful adults tentatively embracing greater commitment in moving but slightly schematic scenes that don't quite achieve the gravity of Lent's many-faceted portrait of Henry's marriage. Lydia sometimes seems more a carefully assembled collection of traits than a flesh-and-blood woman.

But no writer does everything equally well, and if Lent's design occasionally overmasters his characters, we're compensated by his profound insight into this bleak underlying truth: "How alone a person lives." That single, stark sentence points the way to a jolting denouement that will infuriate many readers, but Lent demands unflinching acceptance from his audience and offers in return only an oblique hint that the future may hold something more than despair. As usual, this gifted writer aims to challenge, not to console.

Smith is a contributing editor of the American Scholar. Her book reviews appear frequently in the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.

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