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This Book Will Save Your Life

The Seattle Times

April 2006

"This Book Will Save Your Life": A wake-up call to life's possibilities

By Mark Lindquist

"This Book Will Save Your Life"

by A.M. Homes

Viking, 384 pp., $24.95

 

New York may be the city where most authors like to live, but Los Angeles is the city where most authors like to set books about contemporary alienation, particularly New York authors.

A.M. Homes, a long-time fixture of the Manhattan literary scene, apparently camped out at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Strip long enough to write one of the better Los Angeles novels I've read. "This Book Will Save Your Life" is as acute as "Day of the Locust," "Play It As It Lays," and "Less Than Zero," but with a wider sweep.


Richard Novak, a successful stock trader hiding from life in his house in the hills, is a middle-aged man who believes life can be controlled. Then he suddenly suffers a mysterious malady that resembles a heart attack, but might just be an existential crisis. He is seen by a "psychological internist" who turns out to be a fake - this is L.A. - but who may know what he's talking about.

"Live," is the faux-doctor's prescription.

Thus begins Richard's upscale picaresque adventures in La-La Land. He connects to various degrees with his brother, his ex-wife, his housekeeper, an immigrant donut-shop owner, a movie-star neighbor, a counter-culture novelist and a woman who's weeping in the produce section at Ralph's after abandoning her children.

"You're a freak magnet," his housekeeper says.

Some of these freaks, such as the donut man, broaden Richard's horizons, while others, such as the stunningly self-involved woman who abandons her children, serve as cautionary tales, but all are warm-up acts for the reunion the book builds toward: Richard's son comes to Hollywood for the summer to work as an intern at a talent agency.

As multiple stories intertwine, chaos and catastrophes erupt around the characters, reminding them, and us, that life can be crazily random, that you cannot protect yourself with money or walls or anything else.

Homes is a top-drawer writer, knowing and economical. She finds the telling details and the dead-on snippets of dialogue that resonate and expand the implications of what could be just another life-is-hell-when-you're-bored-and-have-too-much-money novel.

Homes is also fearless. In past books she has explored pedophilia, murder, obsession and self-destruction. L.A., a city famous for its extremes, proves to be perfect territory for her boundary-pushing bent.

Though the title of this novel initially struck me as ironic, or at least tongue-in-cheek, by the end of the book I realized Homes means it. She believes we can be saved by anything that awakens us to life's possibilities.

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