Sunday, June 28, 2009

You or Someone Like You by Chandler Burr

This is a fascinating book that explores the limits of culture and identity. It is a book that I wanted to like. In fact, tried very hard to like. But whether or not I liked it is almost beside the point. Because in the end this is a book that (if you persist to the end) will stick with you. It is one that you will find yourself thinking about for a long time to come.

Chandler Burr is an intelligent and skilled writer. His books on perfumes are informative, well-researched and interesting. When I heard that he had a new fiction title, I was curious to see if he could bring those qualities to fiction and still make the book work.

You or Someone Like You is a truly literary novel; informative, well-researched and interesting. Since I had an excellent British education I am familiar with most of the authors and many of the works written about. Many of them quite obscure and a lot of them poetry.

After a while it dawned on me that to really appreciated this book you need either a better memory than I have or a PhD in English literature. Yes, it is beautifully written, but it is hard work. Highly intellectual and quite enigmatic. Frankly I was almost stiff with boredom about half way through.

Fortunately I persisted -- the advantage of being stubborn, I guess. When Burr finally gets to the issues of religion, culture and identity the story once again engaged my interest and not just my intellect.

Read the synopsis below and if you interest is peaked, read a short excerpt and decide for yourself.

Anne Rosenbaum leads a life of quiet Los Angeles privilege, the wife of Hollywood executive Howard Rosenbaum and mother of their seventeen-year-old son, Sam. Years ago Anne and Howard met studying literature at Columbia-she, the daughter of a British diplomat from London, he a boy from an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Now on sleek blue California evenings, Anne attends halogen-lit movie premieres on the arm of her powerful husband. But her private life is lived in the world of her garden, reading books.

When one of Howard's friends, the head of a studio, asks Anne to make a reading list, she casually agrees-though, as a director reminds her, "no one reads in Hollywood." To her surprise, they begin calling: screen-writers; producers, from their bungalows; and agents, from their plush offices on Wilshire and Beverly. Soon Anne finds herself leading an exclusive book club for the industry elite. Emerging gradually from her seclusion, she guides her readers into the ideas and beauties of Donne, Yeats, Auden, and Mamet, with her brilliant and increasingly bold opinions.

But when a crisis of identity unexpectedly turns an anguished Howard back toward the Orthodoxy he left behind as a young man, Anne must set out to save what she values above all else: her husband's love. At once fiercely intelligent and emotionally gripping, You or Someone Like You confronts the fault lines between inherited faith and personal creed, and, through the surprising transformation of one exceptional, unforgettable woman, illuminates literature's power to change our lives.

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