In a feat of extraordinary timing — in a summer when F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterwork on love and ambition is being peddled as countless commercial knockoffs from Tiffany to Crate & Barrel — Louis Begley gives us the literary equivalent of a hat trick: the anti-Gatsby novel. Here is a tale of New York society and its parvenus; but, unlike with Fitzgerald’s classic, ambitions are met, sex is brazenly consummated, mysteries are revealed, beauty is trumped by old age, and not a character in sight is in love. Here is the tale of a loveless marriage.
Begley is nothing if not an elegant wordsmith. He has made his mark in nine exquisitely crafted, brittle novels with largely unsympathetic characters. His best known is “About Schmidt,” in which a curmudgeon looks back on a lifetime of material gain and attendant losses. Begley’s best work, however, is his dazzling first: “Wartime Lies,” an autobiographical novel about a Jewish boy running from the Nazis and passing as a goy. In every opus, he casts a dispassionate eye and delivers a trunkload of human failings. In this, his eighth decade, he brings us face-to-face with perhaps his grittiest theme — the business of want. Of being on the outside, craving in.
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Memories of a Marriage
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $25.95