Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Cradle by Patrick Somerville


The Cradle
Patrick Somerville
Little Brown 2009

Matt Bishop is on a quest. His pregnant wife, Marissa, insists that he find the cradle, the one that she slept in as an infant and that her mother, who walked out on her, stole. Marissa has no idea where her mother might be, but she sends out into the wilds of Wisconsin to find that cradle. Armed with one clue, the address of a relative, off he goes. Great premise for a book, and on a quest anything can happen.
But there’s more: Renee Owen gave up a baby for adoption when she was in college after her boyfriend was killed in Vietnam. She thinks about that child, although she hasn’t started looking. Not yet. The reader feels that her quest is also about to begin.

And since Matt grew up in foster homes—none of them very nice—the reader is encouraged to connect the dots, and it’s a satisfying connection made between the births of two babies. Part of the suspense of the story is the constant wondering how these two are going to get together and if there really is a connection between them.

Meanwhile, Matt’s searching for the cradle, a trip that takes him to Sturgeon Bay, to Green Bay, to Minnesota, to Indiana, and finally home, bringing with him more than Marissa had bargained for.

There are no dazzling fireworks on display in this book. It’s just a nice story—two stories, really—told in engaging, straightforward prose. Which is not to say that terrific craft isn’t evident in the writing. The cradle itself provides an image that nicely represents what the book is about—emptiness and filling the void that loss creates. (Dare I say “objective correlative?”) And then there are the voices inside the head, a subject that comes up repeatedly. And the keys. What’s with the keys? We see them early on when Marissa tells Matt he’s a genius at finding things because she can search for her keys for hours but he’ll find them in a snap. Renee briefly can’t find her keys. Renee’s mother actually mailed her keys to Germany by mistake. Puzzling over threads like that is something that readers love, even if the deeper meaning is hard to pin down.

I was a bit confused by the timeline, I have to confess, and that may have been careless reading on my part. The story is told mostly from Matt’s point of view, but we also get Renee’s point of view, and the assumption I made was that they are cosynchronous. But they aren’t. There’s actually a decade (or so) difference in the two narratives, which I didn’t discover until near the end. I think I would like to have known that and I don’t think knowing the difference would affect the reader’s engagement with the story. But it’s a small complaint and, again, possibly the result of carelessness on my part. (The timing for Renee's story is clear because of references to Iraq, but if there are similar cues in Matt's story then I missed them.)

I’m looking forward to reading more of Patrick Somerville’s work. (And, by the way, you might be interested in this New York Times review of The Cradle.)

2 comments:

Pete said...

After reading your fine review, Cliff, I really have no need for the NYT's. Somerville is a fellow Chicagoan whom I really haven't read yet, but your positive impression pushes me that much closer to reading more from him.

Incidentally, I got the notice from 57th Street Books about your reading on Feb. 25, which I'd love to attend except that also happens to be my wife's birthday. Hope you have an enjoyable evening there!

Clifford Garstang said...

We're lining up some other events, too, since you don't think a trip to Hyde Park would make a fabulous birthday gift for your wife! I'm at the Book Stall in Winnetka on Saturday the 27th (2pm) and there's a quasi-private thing at Northwestern on Sunday at 3:30. There may be more, too.

But yes, do read Patrick's work. I'm now going to look for his collection of stories . . .