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The Laments: A Novelby George Hagen
Synopses & Reviews
Meet the Laments — the affably dysfunctional globetrotting family at the center of George Hagen?s exuberant debut novel.
Howard is an engineer who dreams of irrigating the Sahara and lives by the motto "Laments move!" His wife Julia is a fiery spirit who must balance her husband's oddly peripatetic nature with unexpected aspirations of her own. And Will is the "waif with a paper-thin heart" who is given to Howard and Julia in return for their own child who has been lost in a bizarre maternity ward mishap. As Will makes his way from infancy to manhood in a family that careens from continent to continent, one wonders where the Laments will ever belong.
In Bahrain, Howard takes a job with an oil company and young Will makes his first friend. But in short order he is wrenched off to another land, his mother's complicated friendship with the American siren Trixie Howitzer causing the family to bolt. In Northern Rhodesia, during its last days as a white colony, the twin enfants terribles Marcus and Julius are born, and Will falls for the gardener?s daughter, a girl so vain that she admires her image in the lid of a biscuit tin. But soon the family's life is upturned again, this time by their neighbor Major Buck Quinn, with his suburban tirades against black self-rule. Envisioning a more civilized life on "the sceptered isle," the Laments board an ocean liner bound for England. Alas, poor Will is greeted by the tribal ferocity of his schoolmates and a society fixated on the Blitz. No sooner has he succumbed to British pop culture in the guise of mop-top Sally Byrd and her stacks of 45s, than the Laments uproot themselves once again, and it's off to New Jersey, where life deals crisis and opportunity in equal measure.
Undeniably eccentric, the Laments are also universal. Every family moves on in life. Children grow up, things are left behind; there is always something to lament. Through the Laments' restlessness, responses to adversity, and especially their unwieldy love for one another, George Hagen gives us a portrait of every family that is funny, tragic, and improbably true.
"Newcomer Hagen's understanding of the mix of love, banality, humor, and sadness that are the features of family life is deep and nearly flawless: a lovely book." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] funny, touching novel about the meaning of family, with an oddly high body count." Publishers Weekly
"Hagen is an agreeable prose stylist with a nice, quiet sense of humor and a finely developed understanding of human frailty and eccentricity. The Laments reads smoothly and pleasantly, perhaps because there's so little weight to it." Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
"[A] light, charming first novel...an enjoyable, inviting book....But it has less substance than its scope and format suggest....Mr. Hagen has shaped an affectionate family portrait in which the characters come vividly to life, no matter how adrift they may be." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"Five minutes into the ride, you trust you'll arrive at a place that is exciting and new....The hype over The Laments is deserved — even without its qualification as a first novel, it is a well-put-together story and a really good read." The Portland Oregonian
"Cleverly, it becomes a dystopian tale without losing its utopian soul....Overall, the writing in The Laments is sprightly and Hagen's observations often tart, and the book has the playfulness of a prank pulled by its twins, Julius and Marcus." Chicago Tribune
"There is an admirable and enviable range and ambition in The Laments, and something lucidly democratic in the novel's insistence that a wandering life grants perspectives and perceptions that stay-at-homes can't achieve." Jonathan Wilson, The New York Times Book Review
"A vital international journey through the vicissitudes of family life. This story, centering on the timeless theme of a child swapped at birth, is immensely readable, funny, and touching — a complete joy." Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle
"The Laments is a fine novel, about family, migration, identity, and the struggle to find and hold on to it. It is also hugely entertaining and very, very funny." Roddy Doyle, author of The Barrytown Trilogy
"George Hagen's highly entertaining debut novel features an irresistibly headstrong family, a global sweep, and not only a sense of loss and displacement that's perfectly in tune with the world we live in but also a full measure of resilient humanity." Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante?s Handbook
"Funny, quirky and picaresque....Hagen, who is also the veteran of three continents at a tender age, has a great eye for his surroundings, whether physical or psychic." Detroit Free Press
"When Hagen stays on target, with his fine-tuned prose, fertile imagination and shrewd critical eye, he makes us feel our kinship with the Laments. When he ratchets up the action for a calculated shock effect, the book falls to pieces." San Jose Mercury News
"It's unfair to make comparisons, but The Laments has the emotional pull of one of John Irving's mammoth books. Hagen's writing is leaner, and the narrative moves quickly." Orlando Sentinel
"There's a bittersweet cast to [Hagen's] viewpoint, and he doesn't shrink from heartbreaking little details that reveal the characters' vulnerabilities....But there's a hopefulness to the book, too, despite the calamities that befall the Laments." Miami Herald
"The Laments is a quirky, thought-provoking read. With an oddball premise followed by a fairly unlikely chain of events it is, in many ways, reminiscent of the early offerings of John Irving....The Laments reveals some rare narrative gifts." Denver Post
"Hagen tells this story of odd juxtapositions with understated humor, skillful language and a satisfying structure....The intricacy of The Laments is in the relationships that come and go as the family comes and goes..." Hartford Courant
"[A] chronicle of moving, reinventing oneself, not fitting in. But, some 300 pages later, we've never stopped waiting for the other shoe to hit the ground — hoping the lonesome lad, swapped in the nursery, will emerge a prince." Newsday
"Thanks to Hagen's polished prose, we can ooh and ahh at the exotic settings. But it's harder to care about the vapor of loneliness and regret that the characters' travels leave in the wake." Cleveland Plain Dealer
The Laments are an undeniably quirky family. They live by the principle, "anywhere but here" as they move from South Africa to the Persian Gulf to Rhodesia to England, and ultimately suburban New Jersey, in search of their place in the world.
At the heart of the book is Will Lament the scrawny baby the Laments take home from the hospital for consolation when their own baby is kidnapped. As Will grows up, he senses that he is different from the rest of the family; and wonders if he truly belongs.
The main characters are Will, his daredevil twin brothers Marcus and Julius; Julia, the impulsive and opinionated matriarch who is ever-critical of the neighbors; and her husband, Howard, an engineer with extreme wanderlust, and whose specialty is the conveyance of liquids through valves. Julia's wonderfully judgmental mother, Rose, sees the family from the outside, and ultimately finds her place within.
Hagen does a fantastic job of evoking place. In Bahrain, the servant Wears "a green banana leaf on his head for shade on very hot days"; in England, Hagen gently sends up the British for their fixation on the Blitz; as for the American suburbs, he brilliantly nails their particular form of insularity, the suspicion of anyone who is different. And yet all of this is done in an incredibly charming way.
As odd as the Laments are, Hagen's feat is to make them universal. Through their restlessness, their responses to adversity (racism, marital strife, bullies, etc.), and especially their unwieldy love for each other, he somehow gives us back a picture of every family, that is funny and sad and true. We realize that every family moves forward in life and laments the loss of something that has beenleft behind.
As odd as the globetrotting Lament family is, Hagen's feat is to make them universal through their restlessness, their responses to adversity, and especially their unwieldy love for each other.
About the Author
George Hagen had lived on three continents by the time he was twelve. The Laments is his first novel. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children.
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