He has the intelligence to pull off a novel of this size but lacks, somehow, the killer instinct — the ability to move in for intensities of feeling and thought and action. He’s written a lukewarm book that seems far longer than its 383 pages. Consuming it is like being in one of those frustrating dreams in which you run and run but don’t go anywhere.
This is Dee’s seventh novel. (He’s also been a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, a senior editor of The Paris Review and a literary critic for Harper’s.) The one that displays his gifts most fully is “The Privileges” (2010), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. That book was about a young upper-middle-class couple and assorted amoral doings in Manhattan.
“The Privileges” too moved between multiple points of view and had a kind of Imax sweep. But it was more than 100 pages shorter than this one. Dee seized control of his themes; he dabbed his story’s pulse points with a more sophisticated scent.
Dee, who lives in Syracuse, clearly knows the Berkshires well and has a feel for small-town life there. He’s a warm, earnest, sympathetic writer whose sentences rarely cloy because he’s wired just enough of them from beneath with a low, almost subliminal, sarcastic hum.
One woman thinks, for example, about the semirural dating life: “A little gallantry, a little self-confidence, some well-muscled forearms went a long way in a small town like that, especially when you were young and dumb.”
This is a novel, to no small degree, about class antagonisms. The people in this novel’s small Massachusetts town, Howland, are struggling. They deride the rich weekenders who attend the expensive sessions at Asana, an opulent retreat, but they wonder what it’s like inside.
Asana is an obvious stand-in for the nonprofit Kripalu Center, in Stockbridge, Mass. (When I lost a yoga-centric girlfriend for several weeks to that place in the early ’90s, I was pleased to learn that some locals pronounce it Cripple You.)
Dee has fun mocking the affectations of a new restaurant in town, one that sounds a good deal like Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the chef Dan Barber’s farm-to-table place in Tarrytown, N.Y.
One Howland resident, who drops $400 he can’t afford to lose on a dinner for two, reports: “They fed you stuff…