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1 Beaverton Literature- A to Z

The Sorrows of an American


The Sorrows of an American Cover





My sister called it “the year of secrets,” but when I look back on it now, Ive come to understand that it was a time not of what was there, but of what wasnt. A patient of mine once said, “There are ghosts walking around inside me, but they dont always talk. Sometimes they have nothing to say.” Sarah squinted or kept her eyes closed most of the time because she was afraid the light would blind her. I think we all have ghosts inside us, and its better when they speak than when they dont. After my father died, I couldnt talk to him in person anymore, but I didnt stop having conversations with him in my head. I didnt stop seeing him in my dreams or stop hearing his words. And yet it was what my father hadnt said that took over my life for a while—what he hadnt told us. It turned out that he wasnt the only person who had kept secrets. On January sixth, four days after his funeral, Inga and I came across the letter in his study.

We had stayed on in Minnesota with our mother to begin tackling the job of sifting through his papers. We knew that there was a memoir he had written in the last years of his life, as well as a box containing the letters he had sent to his parents—many of them from his years as a soldier in the Pacific during World War II—but there were other things in that room we had never seen. My fathers study had a particular smell, one slightly different from the rest of the house. I wondered if all the cigarettes hed smoked and the coffee hed drunk and the rings those endless cups had left on the desk over forty years had acted upon the atmosphere of that room to produce the unmistakable odor that hit me when I walked through the door. The house is sold now. A dental surgeon bought it and did extensive renovations, but I can still see my fathers study with its wall of books, the filing cabinets, the long desk he had built himself, and the plastic organizer on it, which despite its transparency had small handwritten labels on every drawer—“Paper Clips,” “Hearing Aid Batteries,” “Keys to the Garage,” “Erasers.”

The day Inga and I began working, the weather outside was heavy. Through the large window, I looked at the thin layer of snow under an iron-colored sky. I could feel Inga standing behind me and hear her breathing. Our mother, Marit, was sleeping, and my niece, Sonia, had curled up somewhere in the house with a book. As I pulled open a file drawer, I had the abrupt thought that we were about to ransack a mans mind, dismantle an entire life, and without warning a picture of the cadaver I had dissected in medical school came to mind, its chest cavity gaping open as it lay on the table. One of my lab partners, Roger Abbot, had called the body Tweedledum, Dum Dum, or just Dum. “Erik, get a load of Dums ventricle. Hypertrophy, man.” For an instant I imagined my fathers collapsed lung inside him, and then I remembered his hand squeezing mine hard before I left his small room in the nursing home the last time I saw him alive. All at once, I felt relieved he had been cremated.

Lars Davidsens filing system was an elaborate code of letters, numbers, and colors devised to allow for a descending hierarchy within a single category. Initial notes were subordinate to first drafts, first drafts to final drafts, and so on. It wasnt only his years of teaching and writing that were in those drawers, but every article he had written, every lecture he had given, the voluminous notes he had taken, and the letters he had received from colleagues and friends over the course of more than sixty years. My father had catalogued every tool that had ever hung in the garage, every receipt for the six used cars he had owned in his lifetime, every lawnmower, and every home appliance—the extensive documentation of a long and exceptionally frugal history. We discovered a list for itemized storage in the attic: childrens skates, baby clothes, knitting materials. In a small box, I found a bunch of keys. Attached to them was a label on which my father had written in his small neat hand: “Unknown Keys.”

We spent days in that room with large black garbage bags, dumping hundreds of Christmas cards, grade books, and innumerable inventories of things that no longer existed. My niece and mother mostly avoided the room. Wired to a Walkman, Sonia ambled through the house, read Wallace Stevens, and slept in the comatose slumber that comes so easily to adolescents. From time to time she would come in to us and pat her mother on the shoulder or wrap her long thin arms around Ingas shoulders to show silent support before she floated into another room. I had been worried about Sonia ever since her father died five years earlier. I remembered her standing in the hallway outside his hospital room, her face strangely impassive, her body stiffened against the wall, and her skin so white it made me think of bones. I know that Inga tried to hide her grief from Sonia, that when her daughter was at school my sister would turn on music, lie down on the floor, and wail, but I had never seen Sonia give in to sobs, and neither had her mother. Three years later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Inga and Sonia had found themselves running north with hundreds of other people as they fled Stuyvesant High School, where Sonia was a student. They were just blocks from the burning towers, and it was only later that I discovered what Sonia had seen from her schoolroom window. From my house in Brooklyn that morning, I saw only smoke.

When she wasnt resting, our mother wandered from room to room, drifting around like a sleepwalker. Her determined but light step was no heavier than in the old days, but it had slowed. She would check on us, offer food, but she rarely crossed the threshold. The room must have reminded her of my fathers last years. His worsening emphysema shrank his world in stages. Near the end, he could barely walk anymore and kept mostly to the twelve by sixteen feet of the study. Before he died, he had separated the most important papers, which were now stored in a neat row of boxes beside his desk. It was in one of these containers that Inga found the letters from women my father had known before my mother. Later, I read every word they had written to him—a trio of premarital loves—a Margaret, a June, and a Lenore, all of whom wrote fluent but tepid letters signed “Love” or “With love” or “Until next time.”

Ingas hands shook when she found the bundles. It was a tremor I had been familiar with since childhood, not related to an illness but to what my sister called her wiring. She could never predict an onset. I had seen her lecture in public with quiet hands, and I had also seen her give talks when they trembled so violently she had to hide them behind her back. After withdrawing the three bunches of letters from the long-lost but once-desired Margaret, June, and Lenore, Inga pulled out a single sheet of paper, looked down at it with a puzzled expression, and without saying anything handed it to me.

The letter was dated June 27, 1937. Beneath the date, in a large childish hand, was written: “Dear Lars, I know you will never ever say nothing about what happened. We swore it on the BIBLE. It cant matter now shes in heaven or to the ones here on earth. I believe in your promise. Lisa.”

“He wanted us to find it,” Inga said. “If not, he would have destroyed it. I showed you those journals with the pages torn out of them.” She paused. “Have you ever heard of Lisa?”

“No,” I said. “We could ask Mamma.”

Inga answered me in Norwegian, as if the subject of our mother demanded that we use her first language. “Nei, Jei vil ikke forstyrre henne med dette.” (No, I wont bother her with this.) “Ive always felt,” she continued, “that there were things Pappa kept from Mamma and us, especially about his childhood. He was fifteen then. I think theyd already lost the forty acres of the farm, and unless Im wrong, it was the year after Grandpa found out his brother David was dead.” My sister looked down at the piece of pale brown paper. “‘It cant matter now shes in heaven or to the ones here on earth. Somebody died.” She swallowed loudly. “Poor Pappa, swearing on the Bible.”

Copyright © 2008 by Siri Hustvedt. All rights reserved.

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NShatt6783, April 21, 2008 (view all comments by NShatt6783)
The Sorrows Of An American
By Siri Hustvedt
Reviewer, Norma J. Shattuck

“I’m so lonely,” is a cry that the psychiatrist narrator of this truly engrossing novel admits to uttering at times, apparently addressed to himself and emanating spontaneously.

It possibly functions as Dr. Erik Davidsen’s safety valve, since he serves as the reliable, compassionate, wide-shouldered counselor/comforter to his mother Marit, sister Inga, and niece Sonia, whose unresolved grief at the death of family patriarch Lars roils them, piled upon previously existing angst. All the while, he must continue serving the disparate needs of his patients, some of whom are quite unpleasant.

Then there is a newly-acquired burden: his yearning for Miranda, the beautiful, Jamaican-born single mother of a remarkable five-year-old daughter called Eggy, for whom he has become a fond father-substitute (her own father being an erratic-artist-turned-scary stalker). Mother and daughter live in the rental unit of his Brooklyn brownstone, so disturbingly close that his wound of unreturned love has scant chance to heal. In Eggy, Hustvedt may’ve set a new standard for a believable, fascinating child character. She is, in her precocity and creative means of expressing feelings, a pint-sized jewel.

Within a plot with highly diverse elements, family history and current complex relationships loom large. Lars’s survivors come to realize that the hitherto skimpy Davidsen annals may need not only augmentation but revision following discoveries such as a diary of Lars’s searing World War 2 combat experiences. Some added lore comes from quizzing mostly ancient relatives in the Minnesota town where Erik and Inga grew up as descendants of Norwegian immigrants. A waspish crone in their gene pool grudgingly receives Lars’s survivors. She and her odd care-giver, it seems, have a bizarre mode of recording events: meticulously creating and selling by mail-order a line of funereal dolls memorializing mis-fortune. The visitors are shown a girl doll with leg cast and crutches who “fell down the stairs” . . . an old woman doll “on the day she died” . . . and a middle-aged male doll holding a miniscule letter reporting the war-time death of his son. Is it cold-hearted schadenfreude or simply a way to garner needed income from well-to-do doll collectors?

In the contemporary New York segments (and within the family history motif) are Miranda’s anecdotes of her years in Jamaica, including the violent death of a beloved uncle which still haunts her. Here, also, the Davidsens interact with a fascinating, creatively conceived panoply of characters. One of these might have been crafted by the author while Dickens was looking over her shoulder and chuckling in approval.

Bernard Burton had been a medical school colleague of Erik’s who “even then was a fat, waddling red-faced person . . . His chief trouble, however, wasn’t his looks but his moistness. Even in winter, Burton had a steamy appearance. Bubbles of perspiration protruded from his upper lip. His forehead gleamed, and his dark shirts were notable for the great damp circles under the arms. The poor fellow gave the impression he was humid to the core, a peripatetic swamp of a man with a single vital accoutrement – his handkerchief.”

It requires a strong central character to over-arch such a labyrinthine plot with its many compelling characters. Yet Erik more than meets the test. Physically imposing at 6-ft, 5-inches (a legacy from those Norwegian forebears), he appears also to possess a reservoir of character strengths: compassion, an unwavering sense of responsibility for those who lean on him, and an acute awareness of his own vulnerabilities.

The latter includes the drain on himself because of the family’s emotional dependence, his divorce that ended a bitter marriage, and his inability to reach a point where the lament, “I’m so lonely,” no longer applies. In this age of flawed fictional males – too often puerile and narcissistic partial-people -- he towers both in worth and height. Yet he is no Atticus Finch. For one thing, saintliness would blunt his sex appeal which so reveals itself throughout that this exasperated reader is moved to wonder why Miranda is so oblivious to the sizzle, considering that his psychiatrist colleague and sometime bed-mate Laura Capelli expressed this enthusiastic, if nearly sub-lingual, reaction to their first coupling: “Good god, Erik. good god!”

Clearly, if amplified and spun off, certain yeasty subplots and characters in this novel have potential to encore in subsequent books. I would rush to read a sequel. Yet Siri Hustedt has, I am certain, many other stories to tell too. Bring them forth!

Copyright, Norma J. Shattuck, 2008
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Product Details

A Novel
Hustvedt, Siri
Henry Holt and Co.
Brothers and sisters
General Fiction
Family secrets
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Grade Level:
9.25 x 6.13 in

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The Sorrows of an American Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
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Product details 320 pages Henry Holt & Company - English 9780805079081 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Siri Hustevdt's new novel shines; she is writing at the peak of her powers. The Sorrows of American is intelligent, witty, and plumbs unusual depths. It is also very difficult to put down. With this work, Hustvedt should finally be recognized as one of our best American writers.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "In her fourth novel (following the acclaimed What I Loved), Hustvedt continues, with grace and aplomb, her exploration of family connectedness, loss, grief and art. Narrator and New York psychoanalyst Erik Davidsen returns to his Minnesota hometown to sort through his recently deceased father Lars's papers. Erik's writer sister, Inga, soon discovers a letter from someone named Lisa that hints at a death that their father was involved in. Over the course of the book, the siblings track down people who might be able to provide information on the letter writer's identity. The two also contend with other looming ghosts. Erik immerses himself in the text of his father's diary as he develops an infatuation with Miranda, a Jamaican artist who lives downstairs with her daughter. Meanwhile, Inga, herself recently widowed, is reeling from potentially damaging secrets being revealed about the personal life of her dead husband, a well-known novelist and screenplay writer. Hustvedt gives great breaths of authenticity to Erik's counseling practice, life in Minnesota and Miranda's Jamaican heritage, and the anticlimax she creates is calming and justified; there's a terrific real-world twist revealed in the acknowledgments." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "Much happens in this book...but it's important to remember while reading that less interested in resolution than she is in the ways the stories overlap and reflect one another."
"Review" by , "Complex relationships, indeed, but the narrative is breathtakingly clear, heartfelt, and involving. Hustvedt...has written a novel of quiet strength."
"Review" by , "Hustvedt combines riveting storytelling with philosophical rumination as she dramatizes and contemplates the legacy of sorrows born of the struggles of immigrants and the psychic wounds of war, betrayal, and unrequited love."
"Review" by , "Ambitious, moving and sometimes maddening — but never, ever dull."
"Review" by , "[A] thought-provoking book....[Hustvedt] proves herself a writer deftly able to weave intricate ideas into an intriguing plot."
"Review" by , "The meditative tone of the book is poetry at its best....The characters are very much alive. Hustvedt provides nicely drawn details of both the intimate and mundane in their day-to-day lives, and she clearly has done meticulous research into psychiatry and psychoanalysis."
"Synopsis" by ,

The Sorrows of an American is a soaring feat of storytelling about the immigrant experience and the ghosts that haunt families from one generation to another

When Erik Davidsen and his sister, Inga, find a disturbing note from an unknown woman among their dead fathers papers, they believe he may be implicated in a mysterious death. The Sorrows of an American tells the story of the Davidsen family as brother and sister uncover its secrets and unbandage its wounds in the year following their fathers funeral.

Returning to New York from Minnesota, the grieving siblings continue to pursue the mystery behind the note. While Eriks fascination with his new tenants and emotional vulnerability to his psychiatric patients threaten to overwhelm him, Inga is confronted by a hostile journalist who seems to know a secret connected to her dead husband, a famous novelist. As each new mystery unfolds, Erik begins to inhabit his emotionally hidden fathers history and to glimpse how his impoverished childhood, the Depression, and the war shaped his relationship with his children, while Inga must confront the reality of her husbands double life.

A novel about fathers and children, listening and deafness, recognition and blindness; the pain of speaking and the pain of keeping silent, the ambiguities of memory, loneliness, illness, and recovery. Siri Hustvedts exquisitely moving prose reveals one familys hidden sorrows through an extraordinary mosaic of secrets and stories that reflect the fragmented nature of identity itself.

"Synopsis" by ,

When Erik Davidsen and his sister, Inga, find a disturbing note among their late father's papers, they believe he may be implicated in a mysterious death. The Sorrows of an American tells the story of the Davidsen family as brother and sister unbandage its wounds in the year following their fathers funeral. Erik is a psychiatrist dangerously vulnerable to his patients; Inga is a writer whose late husband, a famous novelist, seems to have concealed a secret life. Interwoven with each new mystery in their lives are discoveries about their fathers youth--poverty, the War, the Depression--that bring new implications to his relationship with his children.

This masterful novel reveals one familys hidden sorrows in an "elegant meditation on familial grief, memory, and imagination" (Minneapolis Star-Tribune).

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