Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Short History of a Prince

The Short History of a Prince by Jane Hamilton
Random House, 1998
trade paperback, 349 pages
ISBN-13: 9780965058056
contemporary literature
highly recommended

From the Publisher
Walter McCloud is a boy with dreams unlike most. Introduced as a child to the genius of Balanchine and the lyricism of Tchaikovsky, Walter has always aspired to be a dancer. As he grows older, it becomes clear that despite his desire, he lacks the talent, and he faces the painful knowledge that his more gifted friends have already surpassed him.
Soon, however, that pain is overshadowed when his older brother, Daniel, finds a strange lump on his neck and Walter realizes that a happy family can change overnight. The year that follows transforms the McClouds, as they try to hold together in the face of the fearful consequences of Daniel's illness, and Walter makes discoveries about himself and his friendships that will change him forever.
Decades later, after Walter has left home and returned, he must come to terms with the memories of that year, and grapple once and for all with the challenge of carving out a place for himself in this all-too-familiar world.
A moving story of the torments of sexuality and the redemptive power of family and friendship, The Short History of a Prince confirms Jane Hamilton's place as a preeminent novelist of our time.
My Thoughts:

The chapters in The Short History of a Prince switch back and forth between two decades in Walter's life. Following the school year, the book covers 1972-73 when he was a sophomore year in high school and 1995-96 when he teaches English at a small-town Midwest high school. This is a coming of age story interspersed with a grown man coming to terms with a turbulent year in his past and his connection to his extended family. During much of the 1972-73 school year, Walter's brother Daniel is dying. At the same time Walter is hanging out with his friends from ballet, Susan and Mitch, and accepting his own homosexuality. Jane Hamilton is an excellent writer, and this book is no exception in highlighting her skills, but reviewers seem all over the map on this book. Part of this could be due to the fact that the main character is gay. If this will bother you, do not read The Short History of a Prince. Highly recommended - unless the subject matter will bother you.


Why Walter woke up earlier than usual on August 10, Saturday, he couldn't explain. opening

He was often assigning meaning to moments, saying, Here, and here, and here is a beginning, the opening sequence of my real life. He was fifteen and he he was ready for drama even if he had to construct it himself. Ideally he'd take the part of the unlikely hero, or the witty and cunning rescuer, or the artist who is at first misunderstood. Pg. 4

They had to go. aunt Jeannie had asked for his help, and Joyce had made the lime Jell-O in the doughnut molds, the orange Jell-O in the fish molds, the deviled eggs, a ham and a kettle of baked beans." pg. 6

She always watched over the McClouds' house when they were gone. It was not a hardship for her, no more devotion required to watch and empty house than a full one. pg. 9

He loved the kitchen where the aunts and nieces held on with an iron grip to the Lake Margaret etiquette, as well as to their positions, based on relations, many of which went back to their birth orders and the petty squabbles of childhood. There was only one bowl that melon balls could be served in, no sympathy for the sister-in-law who didn't know better and brought out the orange platter. Aunt Jeannie was obsessive about the refrigerator, and she defrosted it compulsively, guarding the appliance as if it were a beloved feverish animal, the wet cloths like bandages dripping down the shelves. pg. 16

"Does everyone do this?" Susan whispered to Walter. "Replay their wedding?"
He moved closer to her so he could speak right into her ear. "No, not everyone does this after twenty-five years of marriage. It's optional. I think it's like those Civil War reenactments. You get to dress up, fire your musket, have a bonfire, run around. It's for fun, I think."
"But it's sort of beautiful. It's not only reliving their day of glory, but it's -"
"A way for Aunt Jeannie to prove that she's thinner than everyone else her age and has a great hairdresser." pg. 24

Through his twenties and thirties, Walter had worked at a dollhouse shop on the Upper East Side in New York City, selling furniture and house kits, and teaching his customers how to install the dinkiest marble tile, hardwood for floors, period molding and slate shingles. pg. 31

He watched her gather their towels, plastic shovels, buckets, trucks and wet suits, compressing what was strewn over the lawn into one beach bag. Mothers, he thought, had the ability to rake up possessions and compact them, making the whole load portable. pg. 41

He wanted to talk to Lucy not because he wished to cast a golden light on his past but because finally, in his premature middle age, he was afraid. Afraid, he guessed, of life itself. He was afraid of the boys who sat in their bedrooms in the glow of their computer screens, communing in sentence fragments with people they would never meet. When he thought of all those little zombies his stomach hurt. So many people seduced by a technology that bred impatience and greed. What was good, what stood the test of time and had value, was being thrown out and replaced with a perpetual present that was slick and speedy and shallow. pg. 49

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