News Flash: Relationships are complicated. There's no secret formula that can assure a successful partnership (though you wouldn't know it from the masses of self-help books promising otherwise), and there certainly isn't a magic equation that makes divorces any easier. But on the upside, these complexities provide endless fodder for writers. In The Astral, the central plot is formed by a relationship teetering on the precipice of divorce. Main characters Harry and Luz Quirk - together more than twenty years, more or less happily - are preparing to pack it in. They have two children together: Karina, a lesbian "freegan" whose new role is to play carrier pigeon between her feuding parents, and Hector, who is in training to become the Messiah of a religious cult. Not quite the average family by any means, though they definitely capture the reader's interest.
What ostensibly brings about the disintegration of their marriage is Luz's conviction that Harry has been having a long-term affair with his best friend Marion, whom he's known since college. Since Kate Christensen - veteran author of the PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel The Great Man - has chosen to narrate the story from Harry's point of view, it's easy enough to mold him into a sympathetic character that the reader grows to care about and trust. When he maintains his innocence, we believe him. And when his hot-blooded, judgmental wife throws him out, we feel he's been grossly wronged. Such is the power of the author's first-person narration.
One of Christensen's strongest gifts is her skill for characterization. Though Harry's blamelessness seems clear-cut early on, she reveals the chink in his armor and manages a subtle twist that affects our overall view of the character. He's not an unreliable narrator; rather, he's a typically complex human being who, looking at himself honestly, realizes he bears part of the blame for the break up of his marriage. But discovering this doesn't make him any less sympathetic; Christensen likes him, faults and all, and so does the reader. She makes sure of it.
Her prose style is concise, her range impressive. Out of the tangled mess of impending divorce she chooses two themes: miscommunication and misperception, common stumbling blocks in all relationships, as the cause of the irreconcilable differences between Harry and Luz. Along the way she introduces interesting, lesser characters to broaden the plot, showing that no matter what happens, life will not stop for one person's individual tragedy but will go on.
The Astral is a close examination of how difficult relationships can be, and what factors converge to bring about their demise. Though somewhat dark in overall tone, Christensen knows how to relieve the tension - inserting ridiculous scenes such as Harry and Karina looking on while Hector passes an obviously rigged "Messiah test," or Harry's fumbled attempt to make his wife's therapist feel sorry for advocating divorce, a comedy of errors that only makes him feel worse.
I give this book four stars for its entertaining, deeply thought-out plot and vivid characters. What small flaws it does have - such as slight lags in the plot - are more than made up for elsewhere. A recommended read.
This review was originally published in September 2011, and has been updated for the June 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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