David Gilbert’s new novel, & Sons is well-blurbed. It’s been reviewed everywhere (New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune), generally pretty kindly. It’s evidently an important book. The theme is universal: the mutual desire of fathers and sons to be valued by their sons and fathers. The book has much to recommend it, and I enjoyed much about it. The characters are interesting, there’s lots of conflict, and the writing was lovely and compelling. And yet, as charmed as I was, I found myself rushing through the last few chapters, eager to be done with it.
Picture these people: A great writer (A.N. Dyer), now elderly, author of a classic novel, Ampersand. His lifelong friend (Charlie Topping), in many ways closer than a brother, suddenly dead. Dyer’s ex-wife (Isabel), who left him in a blaze of indignation when he brought home his illegitimate son (Andy) as an infant and explained that his young mother, with whom Dyer had been having an affair, had died. Dyer and Isabel’s two sons (Richard and Jamie). Richard’s a screenwriter who wants to make a movie, and has to get the rights to Ampersand in order to make the deal. Jamie makes documentaries, most recently one that shows his high school girlfriend’s slow dying, death, and decay in the coffin. It’s gone viral on the Internet. The third son (Andy) is 17, in love with a 24-year-old woman named Jeanie, and is a dead ringer for Dyer as a young man. A sort-of-housekeeper-used-to-be-nanny-for-Andy (Gerd). Charlie’s son (Phillip), who’d really like to be a Dyer and is currently in residence at the Dyer’s, now that his wife has kicked him out. Phillip’s estranged wife and their children (Emmett and Chloe). Sadly, Jeanie sleeps with Emmett – who’s only 16! – instead of Andy.
These are just the most prominent of the characters in David Gilbert‘s novel, & Sons. Sad, lonely Phillip Topping is the narrator, relating not only his own tale, but popping up as a character in others’ stories, as well. Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Phillip is the observer who yearns to be a part of the action, but in the end, is at best a footnote to the story. And what a story it is. Sprawling, messy, inter-related, there’s a huge “You’ve got to be kidding me” factor to many of them. If the plot line about Jamie’s death documentary, above, is not enough, how about this: Several characters come to believe that Andy Dyer is actually a A.N. Dyer’s clone, not his son.
So, while there’s a lot to like about & Sons, by the final page, I was wrung out, exhausted by the many plot twists and self-reflective ruminations. There’s a book in there somewhere that I would have loved, but & Sons isn’t it.