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Apparently, Oprah has taste after all. She is largely responsible for
turning the middle-aged, midwestern writer Jane Hamilton into a national
superstar of literary fiction, and the honor is well deserved. Hamilton's
fourth novel, Disobedience, is engrossing, seamless, timeless. Narrated
by the twenty-eight year-old Henry Shaw, who was a high school senior when
the events took place, this is the story of Henry's mother's affair. Except,
of course, it is mainly the story of Henry himself. Of how he hungrily
lusts for his own first love, first lay, the lovely Lily, even while he
harbors anger and outrage at the unacceptable lust of his mother.
"Reading someone else's e-mail is a quiet, clean enterprise," Henry
tells us, to open his tale. Explaining that he was the boy of the family,
and therefore the likely candidate to get the family computerized and wired,
he describes his first view of his mother's personal correspondence as
an accident. He is the one who set up her account, who gave the middle-aged
pianist Beth Shaw, mother of two, the more provocative on-line name of
Liza38. He therefore in some sense created her; invented his mother's alter
ego. He claims he was meaning to get into his own account when he absent-mindedly
logged onto hers one day. What he discovers there is that his creation,
Liza38, is in love with a man other than his father, and that she is carrying
on not only a lively and passionate correspondence with him, but also a
very real, very sexual romance.
Henry turns his feelings inward as he becomes obsessed with following
the progress of this liaison. He does not confront his mother and does
not communicate with anyone about it for a long time, and yet it eats away
at him. No matter how many times he decides to stop reading the damning
notes that fly between his mother, her lover, and her female confidant,
he can't seem to help himself. He is as powerless in the face of this affair
as his mother is. Part embarrassed teenager, part jilted lover, he is fully
aware of the Oedipal implications of his outrage.
Henry's emotions about his good-natured, hard-working history teacher
father move erratically between outrage at his father's weakness or obliviousness
and admiration for the gentle man's good qualities. He loves and hates
his father with the predictable vacillations of a teenager, but he especially
loves his mother-with an obsessiveness that makes him think he has the
right to be her judge. The author chooses to make the Oedipal situation
even more explicit by having both Henry and his mother-separately and secretly-consult
a psychic, who tells them that they were married in a previous existence.
Although they do not discuss it, knowing that they were once lovers seems
to make sense to both of them. As intimate as the mother-son relationship
is, Henry and Beth are still more connected which, of course, forces them
On the brink of leaving the family nest for good, Henry is afraid of
losing the security of childhood. Questions about whether his mother and
father are happy, fulfilled, a good match, do not interest Henry much.
He is desperate to hold onto what stability he can purely for his own comfort.
Like many an adolescent (and many an adult with limited communication skills),
he turns fear into anger, and then turns it on his mother, with an almost
superstitious vehemence, as if everything difficult in his young life is
the result of her transgression.
On occasion, Henry seems as oblivious to the world outside himself as
Sue Townsend's hapless comic narrator, Adrian Mole. His youthful self-righteousness
and his limited ability to interpret the events around him bring bittersweet
comedy to his anguish.
With an unusual and moving sub-plot about Henry's odd younger sister
Elvira, a hardcore Civil War re-enactor and male impersonator,
explores a breadth of distinct personalities and confusing human emotions
while still remaining focused on how the whole world churns within one
One of the most believable inside views of a young man ever committed
to paper, Disobedience is warm reminder of what novels were invented
for. Henry's story is universal, as is his mother's, and most readers will
find something of themselves here. Drawn in by the straightforward prose,
both realistic and lyrical, the reader is carried along by the compelling,
if ancient, story. Its 273 pages fly by with the rapidity of daily life,
while the emotions and understanding they evoke cling with the tenacity
of a chronic ache.
© 2001 Heather Liston. First Serial Rights.
Heather C. Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters degree from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the Managing Director of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico, and writes extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have appeared in Self, Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly, Appalachia, Your Health and elsewhere.