8/8/2013 - On his website, David Samuel Levinson reveals that he spent 10 years writing Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, and it shows. No effluvium born of the write-a-novel-every-November pox, this book is crisp, elegant and startlingly smart, an antidote to foamy beach reads.
The clunky title — forgiven at the novel’s end — is a nod to one of the central characters. Antonia Lively is the alluring new arrival in Winslow, a college town in New York. A protégé of a hotshot literary critic, she’s also the young darling of the publishing world, with a celebrated short story, an upcoming novel, and another one she’s just begun to write.
Lively, however, is not the narrator of this story; in fact, we’re not sure who is, until the end. The main character is — or appears to be — a 39-year-old widow named Catherine Strayed, whose husband died mysteriously. Catherine’s husband, too, was a novelist of promise, until his work was savaged by a literary critic who happens to be both Antonia’s new love and Catherine’s old flame. Despite other praise, the book languished because of a caustic review that Catherine fears was revenge for her past.
The critic, Pulitzer Prize-winner Henry Swallow, toggles uncomfortably between his past and present when he moves into a cottage on the Strayeds’ property that is promptly vandalized, with great splatters of red paint proclaiming “Wren was here.”
Who the heck is Wren? Or, for that matter, Linwood and Royal? At times, new names seem an invasion into what seems a small, circular story of intertwined lives. But to Levinson, every word matters, and there are no superfluous characters or chapters in this complex and oftentimes dark tale. Everything matters eventually, perhaps the greatest gift an author can give a reader: the acknowledgment of the worth of our time.
Levinson’s portrait of Catherine as a widow trying to navigate through grief is masterful and poignant. He writes easily, like people would talk, if no one were maudlin or trite, and his descriptions are as vivid as on the page as on a video screen, as in this scene, in which Catherine walks to Antonia’s house:
“The night air contained the smell of whiskey and cigarette smoke, and the throb of music, all of which was suspended in the membranous heat. The house was lit up, and inside Catherine could see the twosome at the dining-room table, Antonia on Henry’s lap. They were playing Monopoly, she realized as Antonia’s overloud voice floated through the air: ‘St. James Place is mine!’ Well, this is a sight, Catherine thought, remembering her own failed attempts to interest Henry in a simple game of cards.”
Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is not so much a book about relationships as it is about truths, and about the sticky, uncomfortable realities that find their way into fiction. Antonia’s short story is revealed to have been based on actual events, a plagiarism of life that fate desires to punish. The dead writer, Wyatt, weighs in on this, appearing in Catherine’s memories.
“‘Good fiction lies to get at the truth,’ Wyatt used to say. ‘Good journalism tells the truth to get at the lies. It’s only great literature that does both.’”
In an interview with a reviewer, Levinson, who lives in Texas, concedes that good fiction is an elaborate lie, yet a lie that “can be more genuine, more real, than the truth could ever hope to be.” To him, every story told is fiction, even when it’s presented as real, because the storyteller can only tell his or her truth. In this, Levinson’s first novel, Antonia tells her truth, Catherine tells another, and Henry tells his, and no one is lying, but none tell the truth. Their stories, however, combine for a provocative, compelling book that’s only flaw is the necessity of reading it twice: once to see what happens, again to see what really happened once you know the whole of every character’s truths. A — Jennifer Graham