I've been asking you readers for titles of books that you just couldn't put down and you haven't offered me any possibilities. But I kept looking and now I have a treat for you. My favorite read of 2017, and yes I know that the year is young, comes from Pulitzer Prize winner (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) Michael Chabon. I'm embarrassed to admit that though I've assiduously followed his career because of his spectacularly opinionated wife, novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman, I had never read one of Mr. Chabon's books. Oh my, now, where to begin?
"Moonglow" is subtitled "a Novel" but it's one of those instances where you sense that the author is having fun with you in terms of what is true and what is not. In fact, he tells us so in his author's note when he assures us that he has taken liberties with his family's story with pure abandon. A love story, a war story, a memoir? What's your pleasure? This book has it all and Chabon offers it up to us readers as a gift.
A young man who just happens to be a writer is visiting with his grandfather over the last week of the man's life. This once rather quiet, severe man is suddenly bursting with stories which he shares with Michael/the writer in fits and starts until he's unspooling a remarkable history of the twentieth century. From the horrors that he witnessed in Germany during the second world war, to his fascination with rockets and space exploration courtesy of the publicity surrounding Wernher von Braun, to a stint in prison, and marriage to a war-damaged woman, the grandfather purges his soul for the eager pen of his grandson.
Chabon writes sensitively yet seductively about the mysteries of his grandmother's background, a Jewish girl, unmarried and pregnant, protected from the Nazis by a Carmelite community of French nuns. In a stunningly evocative chapter, Chabon recounts the night in 1947 when his grandparents met at a Baltimore synagogue that was hosting a casino night. (Funny, I thought only Catholics raised money by gaming.) Each detail of their clothing, their mannerisms, the sexual attraction, and the uncomfortable repartee as they inch toward each other and a lifetime of better and worse, is sheer literary perfection.
Generational novels that delve into family secrets, tragedies, and misunderstandings are a dime a dozen. But in the hands of Mr. Chabon the genre is elevated to another dimension. Each character stands out and none are a "type." There's Uncle Ray, granddad's brother, a former rabbi with a penchant for women, the track, and booze and the delightful German priest and sci-fi aficionado, Father Nickel, who harbors granddad and his fellow soldier in a hayloft to avoid retreating German troops.
Though there are many wry, funny bits in this book, overall it is a distinctly sobering examination of mental illness, of the dark side of mankind, and of the struggle to escape the effects of a past that may threaten to pull one under. There are lies we tell to protect ourselves and there are those we tell to protect others. And though love is a ferocious, glowing force throughout this beautiful novelized memoir the sad truth is that sometimes love's just not enough.