Summary and book reviews of The Sleeping Father by Matthew Sharpe

The Sleeping Father

By Matthew Sharpe

The Sleeping Father
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  • Paperback: Oct 2003,
    290 pages.

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Book Summary

Bernard Schwartz has lost his wife, his career, and finally, thanks to the accidental combination of two classes of antidepressants, his consciousness. He emerges from a coma to find his son Chris, the perpetual smart-ass, and his daughter Cathy, a Jewish teen turned self-martyred Catholic, stumbling headlong toward trauma-induced maturity. The Sleeping Father is about the loss of innocence, the disorienting innocence of second childhood, the biochemical mechanics of sanity and love, the nature of language and meaning, and the spirituality of selfhood. But most of all it is about the Schwartzes, a singular yet typical American family, making their way the best way they know how in a small town called Bellwether, Connecticut.

Part One

Chris Schwartz's father's Prozac dosage must have been incorrect, because he awoke one morning to discover that the right side of his face had gone numb. This was the second discovery on a journey Chris's father sensed would carry him miles from the makeshift haven of health. The first discovery had been, of course, the depression for which the Prozac was meant to be the cure, a discovery made not by Bernard Schwartz but by his son, Chris. Chris figured it out first because that was how things worked in this family . Soul of son and soul of dad were linked by analogy. No tic or mood swing in the one did not go unrepresented in the susceptible equipment of the other.

Bernie Schwartz leaned in close to the mirror in his bedroom and poked the right side of his face with the sharp bottom of the pocket-size silver crucifix his daughter, Cathy, had given him. Seventeen-year-old Chris, in his room, typed the following sentence into an email he was about to send to his friend...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Questions for discussion
  1. What might the author have intended by calling this novel The Sleeping Father? Does the title have any significance beyond its being a reference to the coma that befalls Bernard Schwartz?

  2. One reviewer has described The Sleeping Father as an "inquiry into the weight of words" (Ed Park, Village Voice, March 3–9, 2004). What are some of the places in the book where language is not just the medium but the subject matter? What is the thematic relevance of language in this novel?

  3. Bernard Schwartz's son, Chris, at one point thinks, "[W]hether you embrace irony or not, sooner or later irony embraces you." (p. 122) What is the role of irony in the book? Is there a connection between verbal irony--in which ...
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The Sleeping Father is the talk of the literary world at the moment. It's the breakout book from a respected but little-known writer, published by a respected but small publisher who paid a mere $1,000 advance for it. The buzz started when The Sleeping Father received a full page review in the New York Times Book Review - a very coveted thing indeed and almost unheard of for a paperback original. Then the novelist Susan Isaacs chose it as the February Today show book club pick. At the time of writing it's in its 3rd printing with a total of 40,000 copies in print. Still small fry compared with the Grishams of this world but nonetheless very credible.

Having finished reading it a few days ago this reviewer is still trying to work out what to make of it. It's cleverly written, there are no end of memorable one-liners and the irony never lets up. However, this becomes a little exhausting after a bit and prevented this reviewer from caring sufficiently about the characters to either laugh with them, or at them. This is the sort of book that readers are likely to love or hate, if you've enjoyed books such as The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, then you're likely to fall into the former category. Decide for yourself whether it might be for you by reading the first 25 pages exclusively at BookBrowse.  

Media Reviews
The New York Times - Claire Dederer

Sharpe's arch tone is charmingly at odds with the sprawling, inclusive structure of The Sleeping Father. His raised-eyebrow formality suggests a host surveying unwanted guests, yet he keeps waving more and more characters in the front door. He's a rare find an ironist who actually seems to like other people.

The Village Voice - Ed Park

Matthew Sharpe's The Sleeping Father is two novels in one—an imploding-family masterpiece every bit as heart-piercing as The Corrections, and a stylistically thrilling inquiry into the weight of words. It's a treasure-house of gleaming deadpan sentences (sample chapter-spanning juxtaposition They had a nice time on the couch until the sun went down, followed by Three hours before summer arrived in California, it arrived in Connecticut). It's sad, to the degree that this reader instinctively closed his eyes right at the moment it became clear something very ugly was about to happen. It's resplendent with aching absurdities, word salads, inspired semicolon deployment, golden-eared teenage monologues. It's the best thing I hope to read all year—and if it isn't, this will be a very good year indeed... The Sleeping Father is genuine sui generis genius comic family novel writing.

Publishers Weekly

At once tragic and madcap, Sharpe's second novel offers an acidly funny portrait of a diminished nuclear unit coping with its patriarch's pharmacologically induced stroke....Readers of alternative and literary fiction should appreciate Sharpe's clearly drawn characters and his thoughtful, if withering, examination of the contemporary hierarchies of family and authority.

Author Blurb Ann Tyler (in a New York Times interview)
[F]resh, funny, quirky

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