I’m still not entirely sure what I thought of this book. I didn’t dislike it, that’s for sure, but I also feel that I didn’t like it as much as I could have — it didn’t quite live up to its potential. Yet I did find it intriguing and read it very quickly, turning pages to figure out where the story was going.
The story unfolds on many levels. First, and primarily, it is the story of two cousins, Danny and Howie. Danny, a lifelong loser who always thinks he’s on the verge of making his “big break,” hasn’t seen his cousin Howie for many years (Howie, who was more of a loser in childhood, has actually had his Big Break and become rich and successful). But at Howie’s suggestion and on his dime, Danny leaves New York for an unnamed European location to help Howie renovate an ancient castle into a hotel.
Danny, who is the main character for this part of the novel, is not really a likable character — he resembles the kind of feckless losers I tend to fall in love with in fiction (not in real life, in recent years!) like Barnaby Gaitlin in Anne Tyler’s A Patchwork Planet — but with absolutely no charm and a basic selfishness that makes it hard to root for him. And yet … Danny grew on me. I found by the end of the novel that I did care about what happened to him.
But the book is not really about what happens to Danny. Early in the novel we notice that the narrator’s voice is getting intrusive in that postmodern way … and then we discover that the narrator is a prison inmate named Ray, writing the novel in a prison writing class taught by Holly, on whom Ray develops a bit of a crush. From that point on Ray’s story intersects with the story he is writing, until we discover that it intersects in more than a literary sense — rather than being just “stuff a guy told me,” as he claims earlier, this is stuff he has lived through.
But in the end, the novel shifts away from both the Danny/Howie story and the Ray story to focus on Holly, the writing teacher who eventually reads the novel. She gets the final scenes and the ending that, to some degree, ties it all together.
It’s hard to give these three separate stories the attention they deserve, and Egan isn’t always successful. Danny’s and Howie’s Castle Adventure was intriguing but ended too abruptly. I never got fully drawn into Ray’s story, which we never learn the end of. Holly’s story, although it receives the least page space, intrigued me most and left me wanting to know more about the character. I liked the way all three fitted together like pieces of a puzzle, but I did feel they could have been more fully developed.
I had a hard time knowing how to categorize this book — there are elements of both mystery and fantasy in the story, since many of the things that happen at the castle seem more like magic realism than reality. In the end, I think it’s an ambitious and intriguing novel that worked for me, although perhaps not as fully as it could have. Egan commits some egregious transgressions in the quotation marks department, but is otherwise an excellent writer.