By Jane Hamilton
Doubleday, 304 pp.
One day, Henry Shaw, 17 years old and living in Chicago, accidentally logsinto to his mother's e-mail account and discovers that Beth Shaw is havingan affair with a violinmaker who lives in a log cabin in Wisconsin. In themeantime, Henry's 13-year-old sister, Elvira, has become an obsessive CivilWar re-enacter, much to her mother's dismay. And then there is his bemusedand somewhat absentminded father, named Kevin, a progressiveschoolteacher with socialist leanings who indulges his daughter's peculiarinterests and finds himself in frequent brawls with his wife.
Henry tells us the story, looking back at a year framed by his discovery ofhis mother's adultery at the beginning and his departure for college at theend. In between, little happens that is especially startling. Henry loses hisvirginity; Elvira is exposed as a girl during a Shiloh reenactment andthrown in a pond by the angry, drunken soldiers of her unit. She avoids aworse fate (though it's not clear that there would have been a worse fate)when Beth Shaw turns uber-mom and rescues her in a knife-wielding displayof maternal tigress. But on the whole, the novel is light on plot, heavy onemotion.
It is a story that is not well served by Hamilton's gentle touch. Herwriting is soothing, fluid, silkily unnoticeable, and it gives the novel aterribly earnest manner, as if Hamilton is wary of probing too far. Shetalks calmly about passion, about sex and infidelity, about the delicate balance offamily. Henry muses about the emotional costs of his mother's affair butnever plumbs the depths of those feelings. It's like looking at a fierce winterstorm through the insulated glass of Swiss chalet while sipping wine by afire.
"I could gaze...back and wonder why I had stayed in Chicago," Henry says,"why I hadn't taken serious drugs or wrecked the Ming dynasty pottery in ourneighbor's brownstone for attention.... The true reason...one that Iwould not have acknowledged, was that...because I moved through the housemy mother, I believed, had to stay in place." Henry doesn't rebel, doesn'tyell at his mother, because he needs her to stay. Yet, for all of the talkabout her affair, the exquisite tumult of that need never manifests itselfin other than inert words.
"Disobedience" is a safe novel about unsafe things. Henry's parentsfight, often viciously, but these fights seem quaint, nostalgic. Beth lashesout at Kevin for "letting" Elvira shave her head and for letting her deceivethe men in her enactment unit. Kevin retorts, in a perfectly level voice,that the embarrassment the men will feel is "good training for what futurewomen will do to them." It's such a zinger that Henry actually repeats ittwice, yet it never quite stings. We watch it happen, but we don't feel itzing.
The same goes for the centerpiece of the story, Beth's adultery. Not untilthe end, when Henry sums up his lesson learned with a reflective 10-pagecoda, does the book come alive. Finally, he directly discusses feelings andactions. What he understood least, he discovers, was the one thing that heneeded to learn most. His mother's lust he could relate to, and his ownfirst love is alternately passionate and confused. But his father's love forhis mother, that was a conundrum. "The kinds of love I have felt for variouswomen," he says, "would not have been sufficient to keep me at home andabiding." Henry had been so focused on his mother, he failed to notice thelessons his father was teaching him, without even trying.
It may be that "Disobedience" suffers from characters who are a shade tooquirky. At times, there is a transparency to them, a sense that they arefictional characters in a novel and not flesh-and-blood people who happen tobe the subject of these pages. But more likely, the problem stems fromHamilton's unwillingness to confront the darkness. She prefers the story tooccupy a morally neutral realm, and she even throws in a few radicalfeminists who give her an opportunity to skewer moral purists.
It isn't incumbent on her to take a moral stand against adultery. But if thestory is to have the courage of its convictions, it has to get down in themuck of the feelings that arise. It has to wrestle with the fear, and theconfusion, the anger and the rage, and if those are somehow not in evidence,it has to grapple with the powerful human capacity to keep those feelings ata distance. Hamilton has penned an easy read that will undoubtedly touch some readers, but by navigating around the shoals instead of plunging headlonginto them she has missed an opportunity to write a book that would disturb,unnerve, and challenge us, and bring us to a place where we weren't before.