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You Say Potato, I Say Tuber

What to do when a writer you admire disdains a book by an author you esteem?

Book Cover This may be a commonplace occurrence—what to do when you read a derogatory review by a writer you admire, of a work by another author you regard highly? It is not common for me, though, as I rarely read reviews. In this case my faith in the author in question, Justin Cartwright (The Promise of Happiness), trumped the seemingly convincing critique by David Gates. Cartwright’s newest novel, To Heaven by Water (Bloomsbury), has a number of things to recommend it, though it is not as compelling and far-reaching as The Song Before It Is Sung, which interweaves British philosopher Elya Mendel (Sir Isiah Berlin) into the plot to assassinate Hitler in August 1944.

The protagonist, David Cross, famous journalist and newsreader in Britain, has lost his wife in the past few years and given up his job and seems to be thoughtfully pursuing his interests and discovering new ones. This, to the chagrin of his adult children, who naturally have their own issues but see his unfettered persona as a sign of poor health. Cross is not able or willing to convey that he is happier than he has been in years (harkening back to Rome in the ’60s when he palled around with Richard Burton on the film set of the then much celebrated Cleopatra).* In the final third of the story, Cross visits with his aesthete brother, whom he rarely sees, in the Kalahari Desert. His brother is dying, which leads to some poignant but oblique conversation and prefaces his unusual passing (which I will not reveal).

David Gates apparently had no patience for the incessant quoting of Gerald Manley Hopkins or that there were people for whom that was not extraordinary. And he seemed to find no amusement in the various misunderstandings manifest in the relationships of the characters. Maybe this is a case of “the politics of subjectivity,” a phrase I saw used on Facebook today. Of course, I would be more affirmative if I knew what that meant.

*If you didn’t click on Cleopatra, I advise you to reconsider.
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