The novel is mostly about a research project. There’s an attempt by our narrator, who certainly seem a lot like the author, at least biographically, to trace his family and their various ancestors through Europe and through the US. The author, and our protagonist, are both more recent immigrants to the US, but also has further back immigrants to the US from previous generations. This split creates some schisms in meaning and understanding about the different experiences uncovered and invented.
The novel itself often feels like the Jonathan Safran Foer novel Everything is Illuminated, but with a more realistic and serious contemporary telling of the present search that reads more like a Milan Kundera story. The past is intense at times as the narrator’s ancestor was an anarchist trying to understand a political identity. There’s a funny kind of irony for a few moments of the novel, as the story tries to grip with the fact that Americans know nothing about Serbia and often confuse our narrator for a Jewish immigrant, because that’s a kind of immigrant story Americans know and respect.
The memoir is imminently and almost shockingly pastoral.
This novel begins with our main character Haynes with a house already, but quickly realizing he will need to move from it, to let it out, and to move to a smaller place off the rent his house affords. This puts him back in interaction with the working classes of the town.
The novel speaks to the idea of displacement, even by a kind of choice or with the stability of being able to rent out one’s space, that happens in modern society. It’s also hard to avoid the specter of colonialism in the novel as the market for rentals clearly in based in part of foreign attaches and the like needing certain kinds of spaces. It reminds me of perhaps a person being gentrified out of their neighborhood and renting out a house they inherited in order to afford the higher taxes, but still not making much of an income off of it.
And also I do like it, but it fits so squarely in my mind of those characterizations that it’s hard to reckon with it without at least acknowledging it. It’s also interesting for me, to ask the question, is it magical realism if there’s actual magic? I think mostly so, but only because the magic in this book is mostly passive magic that happens both accidentally and kind of arbitrarily.
So our story here is about two sisters who were raised by two aunts (sisters) who are certainly probably witches, and then one of the sisters has two daughters (sisters). Now in their late 30s, the sisters have more or less formed who they are in life. One, with the daughters, is more responsible, but grieving, having lost her daughters’ father, and now looks at life through an emotional bubble of self-protection. The other is thrice married and shows up one day with her third husband dead in his car. This is both a problem solved and problem created kind of situation. The rest of the novel deals with what solutions this allows for and what problems is causes.
I’ve never seen the movie so I don’t know how it compares there.