Monday, April 5, 2010


Disobedience by Jane Hamilton
Trade Paperback, 273 pages
Anchor Books, 2000
ISBN-13: 9780385720465

From the Publisher
From Jane Hamilton, author of the beloved New York Times bestsellers A Map of the World and The Book of Ruth, comes a warmly humorous, poignant novel about a young man, his mother's e-mail, and the often surprising path of infidelity.
Henry Shaw, a high school senior, is about as comfortable with his family as any seventeen-year-old can be. His father, Kevin, teaches history with a decidedly socialist tinge .... His mother, Beth, who plays the piano in a group specializing in antique music, is a loving, attentive wife and parent. Henry even accepts the offbeat behavior of his thirteen-year-old sister, Elvira, who is obsessed with Civil War reenactments and insists on dressing in handmade Union uniforms at inopportune times.
When he stumbles on his mother's e-mail account, however, Henry realizes that all is not as it seems. There, under the name Liza38, a name that Henry innocently established for her, is undeniable evidence that his mother is having an affair with one Richard Polloco, a violin maker and unlikely paramour ....
Against his better judgment, Henry charts the progress of his mother's infatuation, her feelings of euphoria, of guilt, and of profound, touching confusion....Over the course of his final year of high school, Henry observes each member of the family, trying to anticipate when they will find out about the infidelity and what the knowledge will mean to each of them.
Henry's observations, set down ten years after that fateful year, are much more than the "old story" of adultery his mother deemed her affair to be. With her inimitable grace and compassion, Jane Hamilton has created a novel full of gentle humor and rich insights into the nature of love and the deep, mysterious bonds that hold families together.
My Thoughts:

Told by son Henry, ten years after the fact, Disobedience covers a year in the Shaw family during which time his mother is having an affair and his sister is entrench with being a Civil War re-enactor. Jane Hamilton is an excellent writer. It is a novel rich in character development as it observes the complexities of a family's dynamics and interpersonal relationships. But it's not all teenage angst and gloom. It is even humorous at times as it covers insightful events in the life of the Shaw family during that year. While Henry is perhaps a bit too obsessed with his mother, the point of the novel was him looking back and recounting the events of that year. Disobedience concludes that seemingly happy families are not always what they appear to be. People are disobedient. Highly recommended


Reading someone else's e-mail is a quiet, clean enterprise. There is no pitter-pattering around the room, no opening and closing the desk drawers, no percussive creasing as you draw the paper from the envelope and unfold it. There is no sound but the melody of the dial-up, the purity of the following Gregorian tones, and the sweet nihilistic measure of static. The brief elemental vibration that means contact. And then nothing. No smudge of ink, no greasy thumbprint left behind. In and out of the files, no trace. It could be the work of a ghost, this electronic eavesdropping. opening

But through most of the time I was living at home she was scornful of technology, stuck, as she was, in 1862 with her Civil War infantry regiment, the 11th Illinois. At a young age, much to my mother's sorrow, Elvira became a hardcore Civil War reenactor. pg.1

I can't say for certain what the first message revealed, or even whom she had written. Because it was not only messages from Richard Polloco and messages meant for Richard Polloco that I read during that time, but others too, e-mails that my mother wrote to her friend Jane, hundreds, thousands of words, to explain, to justify, to excuse herself. pg. 3

This is how our family was back then, not so long ago, less than a decade ago: Elvira Shaw, thirteen; myself, Henry Shaw, seventeen; Beth Gardener Shaw, thirty-eight; Kevin Shaw, forty-three. We had moved from a small town in Vermont to Chicago when I was fourteen. My parents seemed to feel that the upheaval, the trauma, of moving from one culture to another, from Mercury to Pluto, in effect, was worth it for all of our educations. I still ask myself regularly what it was, actually, that they were thinking. pg. 4

I was taken from Vermont before I could think to want to leave it myself, and so for me Wellington is the ideal, my old backyard there my deepest sense of home. pg. 6

My mother could never have homeschooled Elvira without losing her mind or harming her child, but she did recognize that her daughter would not fit the mold of a public school kindergartner. pg. 21

I knew when I was small that our worldly home was composed of the sun and the moon, the planets and the Shaws, the four of us holding together with a force that would not fail, would never cease. That knowledge was something so deep within myself it was usually unknown to me, doing its independent and vital work, much like the steady ticking of a heart. It is questionable, I think, whether it's better in the long run for a young person to have that kind of faith. pg. 23

"Elvira's developing a passion," he'd explain, "and it seems to me that it's probably immaterial what the passion is. All the while she's learning how to tackle an interest, she's learning how to find information she needs, and she's weaving that knowledge into her life in a way that feels useful to her." pg. 25

It is no secret, I don't think, that book clubs are formed so that women can quickly dismiss the novels they have sworn to read, moving on then into their real subjects, inexhaustible topics such as their midlife crises, their incipient menopause, motherhood, their own repressive mothers, and finally settling down to their favorite agenda item, marriage and men. pg. 30-31

There is probably very little either of my parents can add to the story except their own brand of confusion. They would ruin it with their perspective, their middle-aged wisdom. pg. 49

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