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Midtown Bookclub: Divisadero


by Michael Ondaatje

From the Publisher:
In the 1970s in northern California, near Gold Rush country, a father and his teenage daughters, Anna and Claire, work their farm with the help of Coop, an enigmatic young man who makes his home with them. Theirs is a makeshift family, until it is riven by an incident of violence — of both hand and heart — that sets fire to the rest of their lives.

Divisadero takes us from the city of San Francisco to the raucous backrooms of Nevada’s casinos, and eventually to the landscape of south central France. It is here, outside a small rural village, that Anna becomes immersed in the life and the world of a writer from an earlier time — Lucien Segura. His compelling story, which has its beginnings at the turn of the century, circles around “the raw truth” of Anna’s own life, the one she’s left behind but can never truly leave. And as the narrative moves back and forth in time and place, we discover each of the characters managing to find some foothold in a present rough-hewn from the past.

Breathtakingly evoked and with unforgettable characters, Divisadero is a multi-layered novel about passion, loss, and the unshakable past, about the often discordant demands of family, love, and memory. It is Michael Ondaatje’s most intimate and beautiful novel to date.

Because I disliked thinking about this book so very, very much, I didn't want to take the time to create my own questions about it, and I ended up simply using the somewhat repetitive ones from Random House's Divisadero Reading Guide. That said, I didn't hate reading it -- Ondaatje does have a way of putting sentences together that makes me enjoy the process of reading it -- but when I got to the end, I could barely remember the beginning. Nothing about the plot or characters was compelling or memorable, and it would be hard to have a 2 hour discussion about the flow of language.

That seemed to form the consensus opinion at the club -- some people loved and others didn't love the actual language used -- but in general, people thought the story felt incomplete, and more like a series of vignettes than an actual novel.

We debated a bit whether the quasi-incestuous angle on Anna & Coop's relationship is what drove her father to his particularly strong reaction. We also talked about the impracticalities of the early story, and of a single father with a farm to run also raising two infants with no apparent help other than a 4 year old.

It also lead to a discussion on why so many novels that we've read and found seriously flawed have ended up winning big awards -- is it politics or reputation or what?

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