Summary and book reviews of The Laments by George Hagen

The Laments

A Novel

By George Hagen

The Laments
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2004,
    384 pages.
    Paperback: Jul 2005,
    384 pages.

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Book Summary

Meet the Laments—the affably dysfunctional globetrotting family at the center of George Hagen’s exuberant debut novel.

Howard is an engineer who dreams of irrigating the Sahara and lives by the motto "Laments move!" His wife Julia is a fiery spirit who must balance her husband’s oddly peripatetic nature with unexpected aspirations of her own. And Will is the "waif with a paper-thin heart" who is given to Howard and Julia in return for their own child who has been lost in a bizarre maternity ward mishap. As Will makes his way from infancy to manhood in a family that careens from continent to continent, one wonders where the Laments will ever belong.

In Bahrain, Howard takes a job with an oil company and young Will makes his first friend. But in short order he is wrenched off to another land, his mother’s complicated friendship with the American siren Trixie Howitzer causing the family to bolt. In Northern Rhodesia, during its last days as a white colony, the twin enfants terribles Marcus and Julius are born, and Will falls for the gardener’s daughter, a girl so vain that she admires her image in the lid of a biscuit tin. But soon the family’s life is upturned again, this time by their neighbor Major Buck Quinn, with his suburban tirades against black self-rule. Envisioning a more civilized life on "the sceptered isle," the Laments board an ocean liner bound for England. Alas, poor Will is greeted by the tribal ferocity of his schoolmates and a society fixated on the Blitz. No sooner has he succumbed to British pop culture in the guise of mop-top Sally Byrd and her stacks of 45s, than the Laments uproot themselves once again, and it’s off to New Jersey, where life deals crisis and opportunity in equal measure.

Undeniably eccentric, the Laments are also universal. Every family moves on in life. Children grow up, things are left behind; there is always something to lament. Through the Lament’s restlessness, responses to adversity, and especially their unwieldy love for one another, George Hagen gives us a portrait of every family that is funny, tragic, and improbably true.

Chapter 1
Unnamed

Perhaps the Lament baby knew that his parents couldn’t name him. Moments after birth he displayed a cryptic smile, an ear-to-ear gape at the fuss displayed over his hospital crib as relatives argued over his Christian name. His mother, Julia Lament, particularly felt the burden. A child’s name is his portal to the world. It had to be right.

"If people were named at the end of their lives, we wouldn’t have mistakes like selfish children named Charity, and timid ones named Leo!" she declared.

Julia’s namesake was a monstrous chieftain of a great-grandfather named Julius, a surly copper magnate of Johannesburg, South Africa, married three times, arrested for slowly poisoning his last wife through nightly glasses of milk dosed with arsenic. Even after his incarceration, the Clare family insisted on naming their children after him in a desperate attempt to win his favor and thereby keep the copper mines in the family. Hence: four Julias, two...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. "No one could doubt that this baby, in spite of his lack of a name, was destined for a happy life." How does the Lament family's vision of happiness change as they wander from country to country?

  2. Will has an intense investment in the unity of his parents as a baby, linking his mother's dress and his father's belt loop with his finger. How does this investment play itself out to the novel's end? What is the significance of his comment to Rose at the Statue of Liberty when he says, "I can't do it forever?"

  3. What is the significance of roses in the novel? When the Midnight Chinaman first appears, he has roses embroidered on his silk pajamas. What does his presence portend?

  4. What causes Howard's depression? Is his overreaching ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
The Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley

It's a nice story about familiar and durable matters: family, love, identity, loyalty. George Hagen obviously has a good heart, and he has created people who share that admirable quality.... the novel reads easily and pleasantly, but once it ends you're left with the sensation of having been on a long journey that never went anywhere in particular. It may be true, as has been said, that it is the journey that matters, not the destination, but somehow that doesn't seem entirely the case with The Laments.

Janet Maslin - The New York Times

Mr. Hagen has shaped an affectionate family portrait in which the characters come vividly to life, no matter how adrift they may be. The Lament parents are especially memorable, Julia for her sense of lost opportunity and Howard for his gradual way of losing heart...Each of them sees new opportunity eternally on the horizon in ways that have the potential to make this a story of crushing disappointment. But Mr. Hagen somehow endows it with brightness and finds a universality here, too.

Library Journal - David A Beron

Although the characters could have been developed more fully, Hagen's strong writing offers a significant understanding of contemporary family relationships. Recommended.

Kirkus Reviews

How [The Lament Family] cope, fall apart, and grow up is the meat of the story, and it is fine. Newcomer Hagen's understanding of the mix of love, banality, humor, and sadness that are the features of family life is deep and nearly flawless: a lovely book.

Publishers Weekly

This is a funny, touching novel about the meaning of family, with an oddly high body count.

Author Blurb Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle
A vital international journey through the vicissitudes of family life. This story, centering on the timeless theme of a child swapped at birth, is immensely readable, funny, and touching—a complete joy.

Author Blurb Roddy Doyle, author of The Barrytown Trilogy
The Laments is a fine novel, about family, migration, identity, and the struggle to find and hold on to it. It is also hugely entertaining and very, very funny.

Author Blurb Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
George Hagen’s highly entertaining debut novel features an irresistibly headstrong family, a global sweep, and not only a sense of loss and displacement that’s perfectly in tune with the world we live in but also a full measure of resilient humanity.

Reader Reviews
peter

Didn't like it
I really really did not like this book. The first 1/3 was entertaining, interesting, funny. Then things got boring, then just plain weird, depressing, tragic. The characters were very undeveloped, the plot boring, the language stilted. Subtlety was ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

George Hagen was born in 1958 in Harare, Zimbabwe, and later moved to Northern Rhodesia, the London suburbs, and New Jersey. He studied film at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and spent several years in Los Angeles as a screenwriter. He lives in New York City with his wife and three children. He says that The Laments was inspired by his own childhood.

Interesting Link: A short video clip of George Hagen discussing his book.

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