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The best in the bunch in the book, as well as the longest, is the title story. Slightly autobiographical (as discerned from Martel's introduction to the book), the story is about an unnamed narrator and his devotion to be at his best friend's side during his long battle with AIDS. In terms of past narrative on this oft used topic, there's nothing new. Martel's detailed, emotional descriptions of his friend's slow decline was better done in Tony Kushner's Angels in America in my humble opinion. But it still makes an impact, nonetheless. The true jewel of an idea is the narrator's idea to take his friend's mind off his illness by teaming with him to create a fictitious story about a family, the Roccamatios and their long family history. Each year in the life of this family is chronicled, against a historical event starting from 1900 onward.
The story is puncutated by the historical event chosen by the two writers, though an actual excerpt from the Roccamatios is never shown. After much thought, I realized the brilliance of Martel's decision to only give us a brief summary of what's been going on with the Roccamatios, rather than show it. Having nothing to really work with, I've imagined this family story to be an epic, on par with The Magnificent Ambersons. Perhaps even more so in its scope and length. Basically, I granted Martel the credit of writing a beautiful, sprawling saga without ever having read a word of it. AND even knowing it doesn't actually exist. Now that's impressive.
Still, the story I do get to read has its fine moments as the historical events the Roccamatios live through parallel the state of mind both friends are in as the deadly disease begins to take a stronger hold. The conclusion you can probably guess. And its execution is done with a sentimental tone that's just barely off-set by an abrupt ending. The final image Martel leaves you with is depressing and it feels like an antidote for the somewhat sugary paragraph you read just moments before.
I could go on about the rest of the collection, but honestly, the first is really the only one that sticks in my mind in detail. The succeeding stories all deal with some form of loss, but none are done with quite the amount of skill as the title story.
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