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The Cherished American Dream Wakes Up
by sundancer on February 7, 2008Michael Cunningham's novel spans exactly one hundred years from 1935 to the future of 2035, taking the reader through four generations of the Stassos family. The father, Constantine, as a young Greek immigrant quickly becomes americanized; marries, has three children and becomes succesful in the housing industry, providing his family with the cherished american dream. But as the children grow into adolescence and adulthood it becomes evident that they are not fated to re-create this so-called dream for themselves.
However, one of them tries. The oldest daughter, Susan, marries and attempts to have children but cannot by her husband, so she has a secret affair which results in a son named Ben. It is the eventual death of Ben while still in his teens that brings the book to it's climax.
The youngest child, Zoe, is the wild child, choosing to live in Greenwich Village and partaking in the the culture of drugs and sexuality diversity. She conceives a son, Jamal, by a black man who also leaves her infected with HIV. It is her death, shortly after Ben's, that gives it's book it's deepest poignancy, for sure, with all her faults, was the purest of heart.
The middle child, Will, turns out to be gay which is his father's deepest disappointment and causes the worst strain on his mother, who must referee their battles. It is Will and his future partner Harry who continue raising Jamal afer Zoe's death.
Another character, though not related, becomes an integral part of the family. Cassandra, a street-wise drag queen, befriends Zoe in the Village and eventually intertwines with all their lives, ironically providing a beacon of wisdom. Cassandra dies shortly after Zoe of the same disease.
One inference of the book seems to be that the American Family has not disentegrated as some other writers have suggested, but rather, has morphed into a diverse group of individuals claiming their own identities while still being held together through family ties which cannot easily be broken. But the book comes to full circle when Jamal is projected into the future with a wife and children of his own, whose futures can only be guessed at.
There are some symbols in the book from classical Greece, especially Ben's tragic death at sea, and these suggest some parallels. Life is still the same, and each generation must learn it anew from birth.
This is by far the best contemporary American novel I have read in years. Watch this author and let's hope there is more.
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