4 / 5
"Once upon a time, the moon had a moon."
The funeral of Charles Henry Topping on Manhattan’s Upper East Side would have been a minor affair (his two-hundred-word obit in The New York Times notwithstanding) but for the presence of one particular mourner: the notoriously reclusive author A. N. Dyer, whose novel Ampersand stands as a classic of American teenage angst. But as Andrew Newbold Dyer delivers the eulogy for his oldest friend, he suffers a breakdown over the life he’s led and the people he’s hurt and the novel that will forever endure as his legacy. He must gather his three sons for the first time in many years—before it’s too late.
So begins a wild, transformative, heartbreaking week, as witnessed by Philip Topping, who, like his late father, finds himself caught up in the swirl of the Dyer family. First there’s son Richard, a struggling screenwriter and father, returning from self-imposed exile in California. In the middle lingers Jamie, settled in Brooklyn after his twenty-year mission of making documentaries about human suffering. And last is Andy, the half brother whose mysterious birth tore the Dyers apart seventeen years ago, now in New York on spring break, determined to lose his virginity before returning to the prestigious New England boarding school that inspired Ampersand. But only when the real purpose of this reunion comes to light do these sons realize just how much is at stake, not only for their father but for themselves and three generations of their family.
I was surprised to like this book as much as I did. I received it quite a while ago as a First Reads from Goodreads, but kept never getting around to it. On a whim, I picked up the audiobook of the title instead, and because I seem to be able to read audiobooks with a lot more regularity these days than regular books (listening while walking the dog & doing chores helps with this!), I had much more success getting into it.
The story was something of a meta-novel, where the novel itself revolved largely around the 1960s publication of a Catcher in the Rye-type book - by which I mean it had achieved the same sort of success, and A.N. Dyer was still being read as required reading in high schools 50 years later. It certainly felt to me as if Dyer was intentionally supposed to be a fictional Salinger. Which was fascinating, because it meant we got to glimpse what Salinger's life might have been like, particularly if he'd fathered three sons. It was interesting to see how people treated Dyer and his family because of this fame - it's certainly a different flavor of celebrity than that of a movie star, but it retains its own cachet. As well as its own sort of fan base.
I have to say I wasn't particularly fond of how the narrator was omniscient; it made the telling of all angles of the story somewhat awkward at times. While being a tenuous family friend (with a bit of a heavy-handed obsession with Dyer), Philip managed to insinuate himself into quite a bit of the story. I felt as if this was an odd choice of narrative technique, but it did allow the reader access to various parts which a normal first-person narrative would not have. Why the author chose to go with that rather than a third-person perspective, I don't know. It was a bold if possibly unnecessary choice.
There was a big twist to the book, too, which I don't want to discuss too much, but it was pretty refreshing and a clever, very unique idea. It made the reader think a lot about the possibility and its implications. Arg, that isn't helping much. All I will say is that it made reading the book worthwhile; it is "revealed" rather early, but makes the rest of the story so much more intriguing.
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