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Marina Willett, MD, has a problem. Her husband, Charlie, has become obsessed with H. P. Lovecraft, in particular with one episode in the legendary horror writer's life: In the summer of 1934, the "old gent" lived for two months with a gay teenage fan named Robert Barlow, at Barlow's family home in central Florida. What were the two of them up to? Were they friends - or something more? Just when Charlie thinks he's solved the puzzle, a new scandal erupts, and he disappears. The police say it's suicide. Marina is a psychiatrist, and she doesn't believe them.
A tour-de-force of storytelling, The Night Ocean follows the lives of some extraordinary people: Lovecraft, the most influential American horror writer of the 20th century, whose stories continue to win new acolytes, even as his racist views provoke new critics; Barlow, a seminal scholar of Mexican culture who killed himself after being blackmailed for his homosexuality (and who collaborated with Lovecraft on the beautiful story "The Night Ocean"); his student, future Beat writer William S. Burroughs; and L. C. Spinks, a kindly Canadian appliance salesman and science-fiction fan - the only person who knows the origins of The Erotonomicon, purported to be the intimate diary of Lovecraft himself.
As a heartbroken Marina follows her missing husband's trail in an attempt to learn the truth, the novel moves across the decades and along the length of the continent, from a remote Ontario town, through New York and Florida to Mexico City. The Night Ocean is about love and deception - about the way that stories earn our trust, and betray it.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Adam on 06-15-17
Frustratingly Uneven Due to Clumsy Plot Structure
A book that tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to layer together several stories and "books within books." It's a frustrating read, compounded by the realization at the end that it could have been good.
The first stumble is the worst, making for an awful setup: The two main characters are barely named and not established at all before we inexplicably jump into a very long excerpt of an old book. The result is that you don't know or care about the two main characters and you don't understand why there's an interminable digression into this "other text." Yet that other text and how the two main characters respond to it are what the whole plot hinges on.
Later, those characters are suitably drawn in, but only after that bungled start. This same mistake is repeated: Other tales within tales intrude at various wrong points, with clumsy transitions in and out of them.
Parts of the book are very good. Some of the characters and narrative arcs are handled better, and are interesting. Where things end up is reasonably intriguing and compelling, (though not enough to make up for the exasperating journey there).
By the end of the book, you can look back and see how an interesting premise with an interesting set of components is put together all wrong. Did this book suffer from lack of editing and/or rushed deadlines? It reads like a very good draft-in-progress -- but makes for an entirely inadequate final publication.
One other grievance: In the first half or so, there's a lot of cultural "name dropping" as though the book is being co-branded by a committee of kickstarter ventures.
For example, in the present-day timeline: Much dwelling on trivialities that evoke the cultural snobbery of Brooklyn, San Francisco, and other such hipster enclaves. And for timelines in early and mid 20th century: Myriad anachronisms and misrepresentations that are only there to pander to 21st-century meme-culture. Thankfully, all this winking smuggery settles down later, but it makes the bad setup that much more grating.
The end result is that this book feels like a half-hearted hipster thought experiment that the author didn't clean up for publication. As though someone suggested a mash-up of "Pale Fire" and Cthulhu. It doesn't work.
As for the narrator, she does a decent job. Nothing particular to applaud or remonstrate.
Not recommended, but if you start it, stick with it to the end. I suspect this book will be more enjoyable on a second read / listen -- but due to an incompetent plot structure, rather than a subtle one.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
By S. Yates on 04-05-18
Excellent narration, odd book
3.5 stars. This book has gotten generally rave reviews from critics. I can appreciate the skill of La Farge, his prose is clear and he builds characters well, and there is a certain dexterity to his construction of this story within a story within a story. But overall, it just sort of left me cold. In a somewhat convoluted nutshell, the story starts with the promisingly creepy disappearance of the narrator's writer husband. Her husband had voluntarily entered a hospital for some mental health issues, but he goes missing one night, apparently walking into a lake. The story then flashes back and she recounts how her husband researched and wrote a book about H. P. Lovecraft and his relationship (often thought to be mysterious and potentially romantic) with Robert Barlow. In telling this winding tale, it includes a book within the book, the flashback story of Barlow pre- and post-Lovecraft, and a flashback story of a character named Leo Spinks, before it returns to present day and follows Marina (the narrator) as she deals with her husband's disappearance.
While La Farge brings to bear ingenuity in the layered tale and excellent technique, I never found myself truly absorbed. First, I did not care much about any of the characters, which made it difficult to stay immersed in the story. Second, the circuitous route the story took was unexpected, but not in a good way--it never truly lived up to the atmospheric beginning. Last, the ending was interesting, but again felt sort of tacked on. It almost felt as if La Farge had a lot of ideas he wanted to cram in, but in the end it felt heavy on technical execution and light on a real emotional center.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful