Is it possible for an author to be too generous to her characters?
That question arises during the course of Julia Glass’s latest novel, “A House Among the Trees,” in which a broad cross-sampling of artists, eccentrics and strivers all come knocking at our door, demanding our attention. At their center lies Mort Lear, a revered children’s book author and illustrator, “the King of Kid Lit,” who has been living in prosperous seclusion on seven acres of prime Connecticut real estate. (His name evokes both Shakespeare’s king and the great artist and nonsense poet Edward Lear, but his sexuality and sensibility suggest Maurice Sendak.)
Over the past three decades, Mort was trapped somewhere “between solitude and celebrity,” and, thanks to his recent and untimely death, he has left behind a big mess of mysteries and broken promises — and three people gyring in his wake: the spinsterish caretaker charged with keeping Mort’s life in order, the hyper-stressed museum curator with designs on Mort’s artistic corpus and the handsome, Oscar-winning British actor who will (implausibly) be playing Mort in an upcoming major motion picture.
With each of these characters, Glass does just what a generous author should do. She unfolds backstories; she demarcates key traumas; she recapitulates thoughts. For company, she also throws in ancillary fauna: a brutish chauffeur and a legendary movie director and a legendary actress and a forgotten actress and a dying mum and a dead mom and a stage mom and a creepy landscaper and Mort’s long-dead lover and Mort’s original model and an accountant and a blackmailer. It should all be confusing, but because Glass is a pro, the trains keep running, and we wait to see what happens when her three co-protagonists all converge on Mort’s estate with their private agendas.
If you’re expecting fireworks or farce — something on the order of “Smiles of a Summer Night” or even “Wonder Boys” — this isn’t that book. By now, a shrewd reader has already grasped that the biopic of Mort will be made, regardless of anything that happens; that the actor will return to his fabulously successful career (will it be the Stoppard next or the Ayckbourn?); that the art curator will probably keep her job; and that the caretaker will have more than enough money to get on with her life.
In the absence of narrative tension, then, we are left with this thresh of rival perspectives, all generously delivered in the same third-person omniscient. And we are reminded that, like Saint Peter, we sit at the pearly gates of our own tastes, deciding (in the absence of clear direction) whom we want to spend our time with.
This was a danger Glass flirted with even in her charming and justly praised “Three Junes,” which won a National Book Award for fiction in 2002. And the danger is even greater in “A House Among the Trees,” which gives up a lot of white space to that caretaker, although she never shakes off the drabness of her conception. As for the actor, he seems to drag Glass out of her comfort zone — New York geography, the covalent bonds of gay men and straight women — into some nebulous showbiz world where “biopics of living geniuses are all the rage now” and actors subsist in a “cyclone of parties and awards and talk shows and photo shoots and more parties” while feeling “far from home, far from certain, far from any sort of lasting love.”
And now I zig in the other direction to declare my sincere fondness for Meredith, the 39-year-old curator whose marriage has been “shipwrecked on the shoals of infertility angst,” whose apartment has been “stripped of rent stabilization (what is stable anymore?)” and who is “careening perilously toward a size twelve, wondering if it’s time to stop coloring her hair and whether, if she does, she’ll luck into that stately shade of chrome, the one you picture whenever you hear someone — though is it ever a woman? — described as an éminence grise.”
Meredith worries more than once about being an urban cliche, but even if she is, and even if she belongs in some other, more rigorous novel, hers is a thread I wouldn’t mind following out to its full length.
Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer.
By Julia Glass
Pantheon. 352 pp. $27.95