Every month, ÆQAI will be presenting one book review, generally contemporary fiction, for our readers’ edification and enjoyment . A lot of back and forth occurs between and amongst novels, the world of film, and visual culture in general. We begin this series with Love and Shame and Love, a novel by Peter Orner (Little, Brown, and Company, 2012).
Peter Orner gives us a four-generation family saga in Chicago, ranging from the generation of grandparents arriving from a small town village in Eastern Europe through children and grandchildren, who move from the city itself into the more affluent suburb of Highland Park. Orner’s great achievement is not to equate periods of increasing economic affluence with either happiness of contentment. All of the characters are constant products of sorrow and loss, and by making the Popper family Jewish, Orner links the generations of this family with thousands of years of other Jewish families wandering in the diaspora. Concurrently, the era of Richard Daley as Mayor of Chicago with the most powerful political machine in America has begun to wane, so that some of the Popper children are unable to count of the certainty of an income earned through the patronage of the Daley machine, although they believe that a career in the law and contacts at city hall will assure their success. Unexpected divorces occur, with the attendant economic downward mobility associated thereby. The Popper grandchildren, Leo and Alexander, are the main focus of the novel (Alexander is the narrator and the younger brother). We are privy to their confusion and sadness rather than the upward mobility of so many American novels in recent years. Relationships worsen as the generations get younger, and Orner presents America as a county of decline rather than one of success, as the combination of depressive psychology meets the character flaws of the parental and grandparental generations.
This inversion of the American success story novel is its greatest strength. The confusion and focuslessness so pandemic in current American life and culture is brilliantly woven in a multigenerational tapestry with grace and success. Just as younger writers Chad Harwick, Eleanor Henderson, Leah Hager Cohen, and Karen Russell presented novels in 2011 with similar economic and emotional underpinnings, Orner, like them, is gentle and kind to all of his characters, and, by extension, urges the rest of us to look at our own family histories with honesty, integrity, and redemptive grace.