The BUZZ: Bestseller by the author of The Normals, Washington Post’s Best Book of the Year
The GIST: Fifty years ago, the father in this story, A.N.Dyer, wrote Ampersand, a novel of teenage boys in turmoil at prep school. It became a modern classic, establishing Dyer as beloved literary icon, adored by everyone except his wife and two sons. A third son appears from outside the marriage, splintering the family. Richard, the oldest son, is a recovering addict who writes screenplays in LA, where he has built a life with his own family separate from his privileged Park Avenue upbringing. His younger brother, Jamie, is a charismatic filmmaker who produces dark art movies without much insight into reality outside of his own vision. Both men are disconnected from their father and their younger half brother, Andy, who is at Exeter. They enjoy the benefits of the Dyer name, but suffer from the fallout of A.N.D’s casual and quiet discontent. The story is narrated by Philip Topping, the son of A.N.D’s boyhood friend and Exeter classmate. Another son impaired by an emotionally stunted father, Philip was obsessed with the Dyers as a boy, and continues to seek their company and approval. The plot revolves around A.N.D.’s attempts to reconcile with his grown sons, and foster some sort of connection between them and Andy. Manhattan society is on exhibition here, along with the consequences of careless self-absorption. Fatherhood as a vicious cycle is a background character.
The WRITING: Astute and entertaining. This is not the masterpiece I was expecting after some amazing reviews out of NY, but I found Gilbert’s writing worth the lengthy read. Excerpts from Ampersand are interesting throughout, as they say a lot about the culture that reveres the book and its author. One thing that bothered me was the omniscient narrator. Phillip is not present in some of the scenes his voice appears in, so I was thinking he might be a ghost, or maybe, as the novel progressed, this nonsense would be explained. It wasn’t. Still, there are enough great scenes and clever dialogue to make up for this point of view dereliction. The main characters were not likable to me, but I found them endearing in their struggles and insights. As a woman with only daughters, I was interested in the father-son dynamic and Gilbert’s poignant exploration of it. Missing from the story are any satisfying female characters, which might be on purpose. This is, after all, a story about fathers and sons – what they think of each other, and what they expect from each other. Gilbert shows off his intellect and education a bit, but I forgave him after a steady stream of belly laughs and thorny revelations, along with some tears.
BUY or BORROW? Borrow. Check out davidgilbertauthor.com, where you can find a list of A.N.Dyer’s books, including covers, synopses and reviews – a clever and amusing reflection on literature and the publishing world. It also provides a revealing timeline of the character’s lifespan.
“These men, as she often muttered to friend Eleanor Topping, the two of them pressed together like sisters, their friendship filling in for the matrimonial gaps. These men, romantically isolated, secretly tortured, became like lighthouses flashing their treacherous shallows. Stay away! Stay away!”