About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island

Yep, spring has sprung, and Cafe Hazelthyme needed a facelift. All that green will make me feel marginally less cagey when I'm blogging instead of out digging in my garden.

And while I was playing with the settings, I learned something interesting: Turning transliteration on will lead to some really interesting results when you start a-typing. Who knew I could blog in Hindi?

Now that that's out of the way, I finished #28, The Gate House, by Nelson DeMille, way too late last night. It was a light and silly, but fast-paced and entertaining story of life, love, death, and betrayal among Long Island's rich and infamous. The novel begins with the narrator and protagonist, John Whitman Sutter, returning to the same Gold Coast estate he'd left 10 years earlier in humiliation and disgrace because his client, Ethel Allard, is dying. He moves into the estate's gate house, where Ethel held lifetime tenancy, to await her passing and settle her affairs. This presents two problems. First, he's just a stone's throw from his ex-wife, Susan, whose affair with and subsequent murder of the mafia don next door was what drove him away in the first place; second, the late don's son also lives in the neighborhood, and just may have a score of his own to settle with Susan. Thrills, intrigue, and a moderate amount of sex ensue.

While I wouldn't rank DeMille among my favorite authors, I have read a few of his earlier books (The General's Daughter and Wild Fire), and The Gate House follows in much the same vein: a thriller with plenty of action, and lots of rich-people lifestyles to gawk at if you enjoy that sort of thing. It reads like you're watching a movie, and in fact, The Gold Coast has been purchased for the big screen by Bregman Productions. (The Gate House is actually a sequel to The Gold Coast, which I haven't read -- and when it comes to reviews, that's probably for the better, as I think any novel worth its own ink should stand on its own, even if the setting and characters are carried over from one of the author's earlier books.) In short, you don't pick a book like this up looking for great literature or brilliant social commentary. To DeMille's credit, though, he does manage to sneak a bit of the latter in there, and does so pretty smoothly. The story is set in 2002, and the aftereffects of September 11 echo throughout it: the omnipresence of American flags and lapel pins; the current assignments of the law enforcement personnel who'd worked the Bellarosa murder a decade earlier; the vague suspicion towards the Iranian emigre who's purchased the bulk of Susan's family estate; and the lingering shell shock among folks in the New York metro area, who knew the landscape and probably some of the victims. However, in contrast to the overtly political theme of Wild Fire and most Clancy novels, these details here serve primarily as background. Through Sutter's knowing but sarcastic perspective, DeMille also gets in some funny, biting observations about the Gold Coast elite, whether that's the weird eating habits of rich women (at one point, Sutter observes one of Susan's friend's taking a lunch of 5 grapes out of a $2,000 purse -- remember Tom Wolfe's social X-rays?), the execrable taste of the nouveau riche and the McMansions they live in, or the relentlessness of real estate agents in affluent areas who (paraphrasing) "could sell a toxic waste dump to a family with small children."

If I had to cite one chief quibble with the book, it's that it sometimes requires a bit too much suspension of disbelief. For example, I'm not giving much away by saying Sutter and Susan get back together; it happens somewhere around the chapter, and an astute reader can see it coming just by reading the dust jacket. I'm not convinced, though, that characters who've been apart for 10 years, haven't even seen each other in 4, and have had plenty of other company in the meantime would still be carrying torches for each other after all this time ... or that even if they were, that the public, sensational nature of their parting wouldn't be enough to overcome it. It doesn't help that they don't seem to have much in common, aside from the obvious (and frankly, you can't do that all the time); if anything, Sutter seems to forge a stronger personal and emotional connection with Ethel's daughter, Elizabeth.

Similarly, Sutter's animosity towards his mother and in-laws don't quite ring true. Obviously, in-law jokes have been around probably as long as marriage itself, and his comments about the Stanhopes are pretty darned funny -- a bit more extreme than what most of us would say or think, of course, but I'm willing to allow that. Where they fall short is about halfway through the novel, when we actually meet Susan's parents. Yes, I get that they're obnoxious, arrogant, and dull, all at the same time, and I suspect they're supposed to be satirized portraits of trust fund kids now in their dotage, folks who inherit enough wealth that they never need work a day in their lives. But William and Charlotte are cartoons, rather than caricatures. They seem more like ordinary senior citizens who just won the lottery rather than like old money, and the intensity of their dislike for Sutter is never explained. Likewise, we'd all believe some tension between Sutter and his own mother (heck, who doesn't have some issues with their parents?) ... but the depth and extent of their estrangement never quite makes sense, especially when we see how quickly it seems to thaw once we actually meet Harriet and see her interact with Sutter and his grown children.

All in all, though, these are minor-league complaints. The next Gatsby it ain't, but it's a fun read ... if it sounds like your cup of tea, it probably is.

That's it for now. Back in a few days with #29 - The Tenth Muse, which I intended to start at lunch today, but sidelined in favor of my own life in food (read: deli run with the co-workers).

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