Kate Christensen’s book The Astral finds Harry Quirk, a poet, loitering in his own neighborhood, lost and lamenting his predicament. He meanders his way to Marlene’s, the local bar, to dull his sorrow. His wife Luz has kicked him out of their home in the Astral, an apartment building in Brooklyn, wrongly accusing him of having an affair with his long-time friend Marion, a recent widow. Having few lodging options, he stays at Marion’s place temporarily, sleeping on her couch, further fueling Luz’s suspicions. Harry obsesses over trying to convince Luz he is innocent. He desperately wants her to take him back, but she resolutely refuses to talk to him. The fact that he actually did have an affair several years previously contributes to her conviction. He finds a job at a local Hasidic lumber yard, briefly rents a basement room from an African-American hair dresser who kicks him out when her daughter returns, then ends up back in a small studio apartment in the Astral.
Harry and Marion get together now and then and commiserate over dinner and drinks. They allow themselves, only once, to question why they, though best friends before they’d even met their spouses, never married each other. Despite the fact that they indeed love each other, they simply never thought of each other “that way.” I absolutely love Marion’s definition of friendship:
“Friendship is a strange animal. It only thrives in voluntary enjoyment of each other’s company, in the pleasure of nonobligatory connection.” Marion also says, in a later conversation, “Whenever someone is thinking of leaving a marriage, sometimes they have to create a huge disturbance in the fabric, behave destructively, run amok in some way, to rip open an escape hatch. No one seems to understand this but those of us who have been through it.” Marion is a wonderfully wise character.
I also love Harry’s daughter Karina, a free-spirited recycling lesbian. She worries about her brother Hector, who lives in a cult on Long Island. Harry and Karina visit Hector a couple of times and hope to rescue him from his brain-washing guru. They take a stab at an intervention, but do not succeed. It makes for an interesting subplot.
After months of futile attempts to talk to Luz, Harry begins to see the inherent flaws in their marriage. It occurs to him that maybe they weren’t so well-suited to each other and he wasn’t all that happy with her after all. He moves into a spare room at Karina’s house and begins to move on with his life.
This story takes a critical honest look at relationships; with children, with friends, but primarily with spouses. Christensen delves deep into the psyches of both her male and female characters, rooting out their most primal motivations. In the heart-wrenching final scene, we see the devastating consequences of pride and stubbornness and their negative effects on communication – the vital key to all relationships.
Christensen writes incredibly beautiful narrative, often poetic. Her dialogue rings realistic, often painfully so. Her masterful characterization makes me feel like I’ve known Harry and his friends and family all my life. She’s the kind of author who forces me to keep a dictionary at the ready, which I generally don’t mind. But pulchritudinous? Really? Sometimes a simpler word is simply a better word choice. Verbosity aside, The Astral is a stellar read. I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys strong character-driven novels. Released in June 2011.