Speechless. Moving to my favorite books of all time shelf.
I don't think in a single review on goodreads I've ever used the word 'beautiful' to describe a book or its prose, and I'm very glad I haven't, because this is the first to deserve it. In expression, structure, symbolism, characterization and theme, this novel is beautiful. The amount of love Larsen pours into this work is evident from the very first page.
Some of my favorite things (in list format, in homage to T.S.'s sidebars which gloriously grace the margins of this book):
The characters: Larsen constructs vividly real characters who are at the same time enormous, legendary, mythic and sad, petty and broken. He makes round, grey characters of such tremendous stature that you want to know them, and love them. Examples: T.S., his father, his absent-minded mother, Layton (though he never appears in story), and, of course, Emma Osterville, my favorite. T.E.'s one-liners give him great wisdom in a rugged sort of way, but he is in no way monolithic, he is fallible, but redeemed in the end. The sheer intelligence in design is staggering and destroys my hopes of being a half-way competent writer, or even describer of things.
The structure: The novel contains a story within a story, a subplot that moves in perfect unison with the main plot, almost like a mirror in time, or one of those circus distorting mirrors. As T.S. moves East in an act of rebellion and to give a speech among a group of scientific notables (noted in both the 19th and 21st century for their closed-mindedness and curious idiocy), his great-great-great grandmother moves West to build a career among similar figures. Emma and T.S. both confront adversity and disbelief in their abilities, overcoming both and yet both walk away from recognition upon the self-realization of their works' and their lives' values to themselves. Both stories have deliciously open endings and leave the reader imagining what's next.
The margin notes: At times it felt a little distracting to move over and put the story on pause to read these, but then you read them and -- JOY. Spivet is hilarious. You can totally imagine the deadpan way he delivers these matter of fact observations and it's wonderful.
Truisms: I'm torn between the wisdom of T.E. and T.S. Spivet. But perhaps I need not be. They work together in a ying-yang sort of way to deliver different types of wisdom that click and resonate with you. My favorite recurring theme that T.S. always brings up is that every feeling, emotion, action, place, memory, etc. is a sum of parts. We always forget this, or we're too lazy to realize it. I walk into places and situations and think: "This feels weird." And then it's gone. I don't think why, I don't analyze, I just take it for granted. T.S. breaks down every situation: the expression his father makes when talking to him as a series of drawings indicating the component expressions that make up the general expression; (<--- semi colon) the different components that give a room it's "room feeling"; the different factors that combine to make McDonald's delicious. He's a mapmaker. What else is a map, but the function of it's parts? It's beautiful and simple and elegant and recurs throughout the novel in just the right proportion and frequency to be enlightening, charming and witty. Another truism (or maybe question that is already an answer?): what if we're born with the knowledge of everything we will ever encounter and life is just the process of remembering or unlocking these things from our subconscious? This is an important question for T.S. as events take him closer to the end of his journey, and for some reason it started to resonate with me too. Does our genetic heritage include not only our phenotypes and character traits, our susceptibility to disease and quirks, but actual memory? Maybe we share a collective knowledge as a species that just requires unlocking. How else could a 12 year old have such wisdom? How else to explain that feeling of familiarity (not deja vu, but familiarity is the right word) we get when we see things for the first time? I'm not expressing this right....there's more to it, but wordsmithing skills fail me right now.
In short: read this book. I passed it on to my mom tonight and felt a sadness that the book was parting from me (even for only a few weeks), but also an excitement that someone else will now get to experience it. I place this book on a pedestal with Life of Pi and Wicked. It's kind of odd, because now that I think about it, I think this book fits in between the two. A balance of childlike adventure and philosophy, though Pi has lots of Philosophy (at least in the beginning). Anyway, I think this completes my trifecta of literary perfection. And I'm not overhyping it.