Delbanco’s centaur

Let’s review our mythology for a moment, shall we?  The centaur’s a mythological hybrid, a creature made up of seemingly irreconcilable halves that somehow manages to live and function anyways … possesses great strength, nobility, wisdom.

In John La Farge’s hands, add beauty and femininity to the mix:

"Centauress," John La Farge (1887)
“Centauress,” John La Farge (1887)


For the past couple months, the world has been giddy about the arrival of another kind of centaur with the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set the Watchman.  

Put this book together with To Kill A Mockingbird and you have your literary centaur — two halves that, together, give us a full picture of the lives of Scout, Atticus & Company.

An immense amount of  talk has been devoted to a book no one’s even seen yet (because newspaper critics have to feed the news hole with something) and to the question of how it will measure up to its predecessor.

Will the two halves work together? Will they form a complete picture of the Finches and their town?

No one can answer those questions right now for Lee’s new novel — but we can for Nicholas Delbanco’s The Years.

Published earlier this year, The Years offers a portrait of lovers reunited after several decades.  It asks the question: Is a lasting relationship possible when two spring and fallpeople, who loved each other passionately in their youth, meet again?

The novel centers on Lawrence and Hermia—her name taken (and much of the couple’s circumstances and obstacles) from Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. Delbanco first told their story in his 2006 novel Spring and Fall.  

Which is why the centaur comparison seems apt.

The Years contains a version of that novel as the book’s first section (there are a total of 4). The rest of the new novel presents a deeper consideration of what happens once the happy ending has been reached.  The earlier novel ends with the words “Please stay.”  The new one shows us what happens once he does.

Delbanco has revisited earlier work before (most notably in the adjusting and revising of his Sherbrookes saga, a trilogy, into a single work), and here we find his 2006 novel fitting seamlessly within the framework of the larger one.

We don’t lose early set pieces from the first novel, like the Luparium encounter in the first section (aspiring writers, this is how you do it).  But the new novel permits Lawrence’s health problems to cast longer shadows across the narrative even as new troubles appear (with neighbors, with loved ones, more unavoidable illness and misunderstanding).

Loss is expressed here in the cruel, daily reminders —  like the familiar scent of a perfume or aftershave after someone’s gone, or the dinners they once ate and the music they enjoyed.  All of it rings true.  It’s the small things that hurt the most.  It’s enough to turn the survivor into stone.

And how that stone — cold, hard, stiff — warms to life again is something the book’s later pages follow, and won’t be spoiled here.  Let it suffice that these later pagesthe years are an honest portrait of many types of recovery — of meaning, of self, of resistance to collapse, all ornamented with evocative scenery from the East Coast:

…there is their headstone and a lilac bush and cranberry patch sloping down to the shore. The walkways of the graveyard have been covered with crushed oyster shells; there are beach plums and rosa rugosa and a stand of pines.  The cemetery is well tended by a crew from Provincetown, men paid to rake and mow.

Many successful writers will admit that some of their published work feels incomplete, rushed into print.  I’ve come across this in reading countless interviews; you probably have, too.  What’s their solution?  Usually it’s a time to sigh, shrug, and get on with the next one.  Hopefully that next work will be closer to their inspiration.

But Delbanco’s The Years is a refusal to give in.   Spring and Fall has been recalibrated by the new book, and I admire that.  It’s a marvel to witness what he’s done in The Years, his Yeatsian impulse to remake old songs.  My beloved friends, you will marvel at it, too.



5 thoughts on “Delbanco’s centaur

  1. I was particularly caught by this: ” It’s the small things that hurt the most. It’s enough to turn the survivor into stone.” All of us have witnessed, or experienced, that phenomenon. The thought that a writer could portray the warming of the stone is enough to make the book appeal.

  2. Thanks shoreacres. It’s a poignant story. Beautiful prose. I’ve heard some critics also describe it as very Job-like. That’s a good way to describe it, too.

  3. Great review, Nick! Will have to add this one (well, really both) to the already towering pile. How I wish I were a faster reader! I ran into an author friend on the street last night. She despaired (for good reason) at ever finishing a novel she’s been working on for years. She has two small children and a husband who travels frequently. Her first book was published before the birth of her first child. I don’t know why, but your review reminded me of her desperation and determination to go on.

  4. You and me both, Jil… I wish I was a faster reader … and writer! I can sympathize with your friend since I’ve been on a similarly long journey. But I’m glad it’s taken a long time: if it hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have learned so much!

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