From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Overstory, the tale of Jonah, Ruth and Joseph, the children of mixed-race parents determined to raise them beyond time, beyond identity, steeped in song. Yet they cannot be protected from the world forever.
Here Powers weaves together the four-note motif of Bach's Goldberg Variations, the four nucleotides (don't ask) described in the structure of DNA, and the tetragrammaton, the four-letter Hebrew word for God ... With his interest in isolated, atomised individuals and his attempts to yoke together seemingly incompatible disciplines, Powers has probably got EM Forster's humanist cry from Howards End, 'only connect', hanging over his writing desk ... The story is told in short episodes that move back and forth across five decades, so that we return again and again to the same events. The novel begins with the competition triumph of Jonah and Joey, but when we return hundreds of pages later to this same event, it is enriched by the new context in which it is placed ... Others may give us more complex characters, but it is rare to find a novel as intellectually and emotionally engaging as this.
There is a great deal to admire in the grand symphonic music that Powers makes of these individual notes. As his vast and complex narrative unfolds, the innumerable humiliations to which the Stroms of all shades are subjected are poignantly evoked; the worst are the most quotidian ... His weakness as a writer is the weakness of all conceptual artists: you may admire his elaborate installations, but you sometimes find yourself missing the simple pleasures of good old-fashioned painting ... More problematic still, he is not a writer whose interest in his characters goes beyond their usefulness as symbolic elements in grand theoretical assemblages ... Powers's blending of unlikely tones in order to probe the problems of a society that continues to insist, all grays to the contrary, on seeing everything in terms of black and white is, more often than not, a fascinating, stimulating and moving artistic imagining of a harmony that continues to elude us in life.
A Ken Burns documentary in the form of a novel, featuring a full syllabus of American history from 1940 on, with a double major in classical musicology (emphasis on voice) and electives in nuclear physics and mathematics and the fate of Eastern European Jewry in the Holocaust ... The premise has promise, but Powers has taken a shortcut to making them singular—he’s made them gifted. A sizable fraction of the book is devoted to superlatives about Jonah’s talent ... There is also an often cloying soundtrack of historical heavy breathing ... And too often in this weepy novel, one is alarmed to discover that the lump in one’s throat is actually a large, semi-digested wad of mismatched images—metaphorical miscegenation, still and always a sin before God and copy editor ... The emotion in this book often seems to have a borrowed, air-guitarish quality. There’s passion here—too much, probably—but it’s finally a novel of received ideas.