Following her bestselling The Architect of Desire, Suzannah Lessard returns with a blend of historical travelogue, reportorial probing, philosophical meditation, and prose poem to explore the nation's landscapes and what they reveal about their inhabitants.
Half memoir, half cri de coeur, Lessard’s lambent, thoughtful, exquisitely written collection of interconnected essays dissects—as an art historian would a picture, a literary critic a text, a medical examiner a cadaver—a diverse swath of America ... She writes about such places from what you might call an exalted literary remove. The mode is epistolary, poetic, occasionally honest to a fault (the Youngstown remark, for example) and moral ... Lessard laments that American students, intent on business careers, are not more interested in these things, that they eschew social activism today, a fogyish plaint that seems the exact opposite of true. I wondered how many of them she had interviewed for the book. I found myself wishing for the voices of more local residents when she was on her jaunts into what appeared to her to be the haphazard zones of atopia ... Surely these places aren’t nowhere to all the people who live there ... Fortunately, writers like Lessard demonstrate that the truth awaits excavation.
Lessard is at her best when handling the ways place and people interact (Disney's attempt to build a history theme park just south of Washington, D.C.), and on shakier ground when handling larger issues (market forces versus governmental powers). One of her finest chapters considers a mall in King of Prussia, Pa., and the tensions and challenges facing shopping malls across the country ... Lessard can speak from a place of economic comfort that may grate some readers, but the value of her decades of research is undeniable. The Absent Hand is often dense, as Lessard draws upon centuries of human history to make her arguments. In this ambitious work, place is examined, deconstructed and incrementally illuminated, even as our landscape changes anew ... This broad social-historical consideration of American landscapes will satisfy and challenge the most serious reader.
Lessard revels in the ambiguities, questioning her own assumptions and challenging the reader’s preconceptions ... As Lessard alternates between narrative and analysis, what begins as a pastiche of vignettes builds into an entrancing reconsideration of America’s history, from the spaces of the antebellum South through the landscapes of the Cold War and beyond. Some readers will raise an eyebrow at the occasional sweeping assertion and purple flourish. But this nonetheless remains a stellar work of landscape criticism, a rapturous meditation on the revelatory power of place.