Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Day at the Beach by Helen Schulman

I can remember when the first few fiction books and movies that tried to respond to the events of 9/11 first came out. There was such a collective holding of breath. Could authors and screenwriters tackle this subject artfully?  How does one try to say something about such a catastrophic and insane event?  

I personally haven't read much fiction that incorporates 9/11.  Only Maynard's novel the Usual Rules, which was so full of real, human, colorful characters that one wasn't too concerned with the portrayal of the event.

Reading A Day at the Beach was haunting, as it narrates the events of September 11, 2001 so realistically. Schulman reveals that she studied tapes of the newscasts at the Museum of Radio and Television, and that she also lived in lower Manhattan.  It's hard not to read this book and recall one own's experience of that fateful day. I was a freshman in college in Philadelphia.  I was woken up by a phone call from my roommate's parents who implored us to turn on the TV.  The first building had been hit but I still went to my 10 am class.  Later, classes would be cancelled. But that morning I sat through my regularly scheduled Freshman Seminar on Desert Islands (comparative literature).

This book is so magical.  It narrates the events of that fateful day through the eyes of a German former famous ballerina (who had his own company) and his muse and wife, a Jewish woman who grew up in Riverdale.  It offers one small perspective on this national tragedy, and by doing so allows the reader to ponder a series of larger than life questions: what is the value of art? what does it mean to be part of a community? do we ever truly overcome our past?  what does it mean to be a supportive spouse?

I am having trouble coming up with the right words to explain the essence of this novel.  The blurbs on the back seem to capture everything I want to say and more:

Elissa Schappell writes: "An astonishing tour de force of a novel, deeply compassionate and piercingly intelligent  Schulman's A Day at the Beach has echoes of DeLillo but is wholly her own vision of what it means to be  a human living in a complicated universe full of desire and longing, addressing the power of art, the costs of love, the wages of history, and how 9/11 cast every American's life into sharp relief.  The ending left me in tears, shaken, but intensely grateful for the gift of this remarkable book."

Kurt Anderson writes: "A precarious marriage, a teetering career, betrayal, and paranoia -- all set in New York on September 11, 2001.  Who knew those elements could be a recipe for redemption and uplift? Helen Schulman's craft and wisdom are both impressive and effortless-looking and A Day at the Beach is a riveting story that captures the zeitgeist pitch perfectly."

I think the only thing I want to add is that Schulman is able to tackle so much in only 209 pages. This to me is tremendous.  Bubbling throughout the one and a half days that are narrated are issues pertaining to jealousy, longing, loss of one's self to motherhood, the fleetingness of success, autism, the difference between Europeans and Americans, love, the grandness of NYC and so much more.

I almost feel as my review cannot do this book justice.

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