I struggle with books that don’t offer characters that I can root for. If a story is told through the voice of a particularly unlikable character it becomes even more difficult for me.
Wilson’s novel is told from the perspective of a narcissistic widow who has little contact with his adult children, recently retired from his life’s work and moved into a retirement community. That Wilson could make this guy sympathetic is a credit to her writing.
Frederick Lothian has an interesting perspective on things. His love of design and dreams of becoming an architect morph into a career as a professor of civil engineering. Everything in his life is translated and equated to it’s structural soundness and the intent of its design. He is a man firmly entrenched in his own aesthetic and viewpoint. It comes as no surprise that his area of specialization is concrete.
Frederick becomes paralyzed when confronted with the messiness of being human. Unable or unwilling to give his wife or children the emotional support they needed, he now finds himself, at 69, alone. His wife, Martha, has died of cancer. Caroline, his estranged adopted daughter lives half a world away. Callum, his biological son, is a constant reminder of his own shortcomings.
He isolates himself inside his new apartment. It becomes easier to leave phone calls unanswered; demands unheard. Every box that he opens brings back memories that he cannot confront so he lives surrounded by unpacked belongings. He becomes obsessed with reading the daily obituaries.
When he meets his neighbor, Jan, after a mutual friend has an accident, he can’t hide as easily from her unashamed intrusion into his life. Shining an even stronger spotlight on what Frederick begins to understand about himself, Jan is the breath of fresh air that the novel needs to gradually make Frederick a more sympathetic character.
Frederick’s fixation on structure and function cannot be as easily extended to the human beings in his life. Understanding how to build a bridge is not the same as bridging the gap between ourselves and others. Wilson’s novel is about the compromise, adaptation and empathy that is not just needed to survive, but to thrive.