My Cataloger’s Stamp of Approval for the best book of the year goes to:
I’ve read over 30 works of literature on the Vietnam War, and this one stands out for how tactile it is. Many books about Vietnam describe the colors of the triple canopy jungle, where even the sunlight appears green. But none have come this close to expressing the way everything feels – from the ground underfoot to the razor-sharp elephant grass. Even the smells are evoked in a more immediate way than in other works. The characters are well-developed, especially the main character, Waino Mellas. He’s just a guy, and the reader can be rather indifferent towards him, since Marlantes doesn’t make him into a hero. It’s this sort of complexity that makes this novel stand out, too.
I can’t do this book justice, in trying to describe why it is so outstanding. I’ll just say this: Atlantic Monthly Press published this novel after it already had a small publishing run with El León Literary Arts. The Atlantic Monthly Press edition is about 40 pages shorter. This book is so damn good that, when I finished reading it, I got a copy of the El León Literary Arts edition, so when I read it next, I can read those other 40 pages. Marlantes is an amazing writer, and I hope we don’t have to wait another 30 years for his next book.
Yglesias’s novel is beautifully wrought, with meticulously crafted characters moving through the heartbreaking denouement of a thirty-year romance. Enrique, the protagonist, is saddled with the burden of herding his family through the final days of his wife Margaret’s life. In between the episodes of final goodbyes and medical crises, the reader sees how their romance started and how it unfolded through their years of happy marriage.
Of course, it could hardly be happy in the sense of blissfully moving from one joyous moment to the next. They have their problems, including the near dissolution of their marriage in its early years. What makes the reader cheer from the sidelines, even while it is revealed that Enrique had an affair, is the way he desperately wants to tell his wife, at the end of her life, how much he loves her, how much her very existence has made life worth living. His fear, as he coordinates a social calendar of final goodbyes for her friends and family, is that he won’t have a chance to tell her. This fear is pervasive, and seeing how these final days unfold make the novel engrossing.
Yglesias employs beautiful turns of phrase throughout the novel, putting words to feelings that many have experienced while dealing with the illness and death of a loved one. Enrique reveals how difficult it is to help other people cope emotionally, when he is trying so hard himself to do that as well: they were “demanding he put Band-Aids on their scrapes while he was bleeding to death” (88). Enrique deals with the demands of family, particularly Margaret’s parents concern with funeral arrangements. In passages like this, Yglesias shines in describing Margaret’s mother’s need to control the arrangements, to have them just the way her family has always had them, because the need for something familiar would almost make one feel safe in the midst of the uncertainty of a life without Margaret (184).
There are witty passages as well, like Enrique’s internal debate about selecting pants to wear on his first date with Margaret (129). Enrique and Margaret are great conversational foils, never devolving into the pattern of saying the same things to each other repeatedly, nor remaining silent because, after all these years, there is nothing left to say. Their relationship is alive and vibrant, and they still can surprise each other when they open their mouths. This is something beautiful to see, and it makes the ending of the novel so hard to bear.
The first chapter didn’t draw me in to the novel the way that the second – and each subsequent chapter – did. I do not mention this as a critique, but rather so that readers know that they might not be enthralled on first meeting the characters, but it is worth hanging on for a few more pages to let this story get a running start.
I think the great strength of this novel is the detailed expression of the emotions that swirl around the beginning and end of this marriage. These characters are vibrantly alive, and will remain lodged in my mind for some time now. It is an excellent read, even if it leaves the reader in tears.