I was not excited to read this book. It was chosen as the new selection for our book club at my office (a book club I started) and I had never read anything by Michael Ondaatje before. I saw the film version of The English Patient and was not entertained. I also asked my mom (a high school AP English teacher) what she has read of his, and she said that she read and hated The English Patient. Granted, she and I have starkly different tastes in fiction (she told me to avoid A Clockwork Orange and it turned out to be one of my all-time favorites; she is also responsible for recommending A History of Love, which was atrocious). Still, her negative opinion of his supposed magnum opus made me concerned about the prospect of having to read this book, and a mediocre Times review was not encouraging.
I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, I am completely impressed. Ondaatje’s sentences are subtle, understated, and yet hauntingly beautiful.
The story begins slowly, and in general Ondaatje is in no rush. The opening descriptions of the land and setting are nice, but (for me) not a main attraction in choosing a novel, so I worried that this book would be tiresome. To my delight, the story builds and soon takes flight, and I was relieved that the book is in fact plot-driven.
The story centers on (though not for long) a patchwork “family” on a farm in Northern California. There are two girls– Anna and Claire– who function as twin sisters, though the latter was adopted at birth by Anna’s father, whose wife died giving birth to Anna (stay with me). If you feel lost, I can vouch that these details come across seamlessly and are not confusing. Also living on the farm with Claire, Anna, and Anna’s father (who I believe is never named), is Cooper, a virile, outdoorsy American boy with a few years on the girls.
Even though Cooper lives with the family, he is never accepted as a “son,” but rather treated like an indentured servant– not cruelly, or without respect, but formally. He is removed from the girls and their father, though soon enough they, too, are divided from each other, hence the novel’s apt title.
The action soars once a shocking event occurs that sees both Anna and Coop (separately) flee the farm for good. We are then given the briefest of glimpses into the lives of the three children as they move across the western coast and lead out their fractured lives. All three are lonely, and damaged by their memories. Yet the book is not a typical, gloomy meditation on “the past,” and because of this we are never bored, or annoyed by the characters. We also don’t pity them. Instead, the book becomes (to my surprise) a real page-turner as we breeze through Coop’s adventures as a gambler in Vegas, Anna’s restrained love affair at a writer’s house in the French village of Dému, and Claire’s work for a public defense lawyer in San Francisco.
Throughout the book are little sentences that are so beautiful they beg to be read aloud, softly. When Cooper begins a sexual tryst with a gambling, alluring older woman, she occasionally reminds him of Anna, and we read that, “He did not know whether she was a lens to focus the past or a fog to obliterate it.” Later, when a character gazes out of his window toward the neighboring farmhouse (home of his forbidden love) we get this gem: “There was a tightrope between the two farms, and below it an abyss.” Ondaatje’s details are never overstated, nor could he be called verbose. Each word is used carefully, painstakingly selected as in a Hemingway passage.
Another striking passage comes when an adult Claire lazily accepts a pill from a stranger in a casino, unaware and uncaring what drug she has taken. Ondaatje gives a perfectly graceful, restrained description of her high, telling us that when a man brings her a glass of milk on a tray, the milk looks so white that Claire decides “there must have been a lit bulb within it.” When she drifts into a dream state and completely forgets her purpose, she reasons that later, she’ll try harder to think about it, and eventually, “the reason for being in Tahoe would then roll in her direction like a marble.” This is terrific writing.
Once the characters depart the farm and its painful memories, Claire remains the only one of three who continues to go home to the original farm and see her father, though it is implied that even they have a strained relationship. The father’s hand in the book’s brutal inciting event remains, for all characters, an elephant in the room.
However, the book is divided (ahem) into three parts, and although there are clear strands of relationships connecting them, it is done less beautifully than in, say, a Murakami novel. Whereas a book like Norwegian Wood occasionally switches focus to fringe characters, but leaves you still caring about them all equally, I did not find the same appeal in Ondaatje’s shifting focuses.
Although the first part (and as I said, the most enjoyable) is the longest, the second part abandons Coop and Claire (and we only stay with Anna peripherally), shifting focus to Rafael, a mysterious gypsy that Anna has begun something with at her country home in Dému. There are details about their relationship, but for the most part we learn of Rafael’s childhood and the path he travailed that led him to his current station in life. Though the writing remains strong, it is frustrating to leave Coop and Claire, and, disappointingly, Ondaatje never rejoins them. I acknowledge that his writing is powerful, and engaging, and so we do quickly become nestled in Rafael’s story, and it certainly never becomes boring. However, the feeling remains that this is not the figure we care about most.
Finally, matters worsen in the third and final part, which takes us all the way back through the years to the childhood of Lucien Segura, the writer whose home Anna (in our would-be present) is now inhabiting. Again, here (and in fact possibly more than in Rafael’s section) Ondaatje slyly brings the reader to care about Lucien and become enmeshed in his story. We learn of how he became partially blind, and of certain enthralling affairs between his adult daughters and their husbands. We watch Lucien age gracefully, and we see a tragic love that never comes to fruition between him and a neighbor.
At all times, however, I couldn’t help but miss our three original characters. Ondaatje deftly weaves the three sections together, and the connections are engaging. But this is a book without a protagonist, and without final closure. As Erica Wagner wrote in her Times review, Divisadero “is a series of narratives that calls itself, perhaps for convenience’ sake, a novel. I’m not sure that it is, in fact, a novel.” I agree. However, I would hesitate to call it anything else. Certainly the writing is too stylized, and the focus brings us too deep to simply consider this to be three novellas. The links between the three parts are abundant, and though I personally was not as riveted by Rafael’s history or Lucien’s, I was impressed by the full, complete character backgrounds that Ondaatje delivers, almost like a historian. I was impressed, as well, by the way that he builds up time lines without the reader noticing that it’s happening.
The trick of attaching us to three fascinating characters, only to abandon them, is difficult to stomach. In fact, there is even one rather exciting cliffhanger that he leaves completely unexamined: Claire decides to drive a memory-addled Coop back to the farm to visit the father, and we never see the outcome of this very risky moment. It is as though Ondaatje himself could not imagine what would occur– a tearful reunion, an intensely uncomfortable, tense greeting, or quite possibly more violence– and so he simply leaves it floating there, as he does with the conclusion of Anna’s romance with Rafael and with Claire’s professional future.
However, the book is rewarding on multiple readings, and the gorgeous, restrained prose draws you in almost immediately. Even with frustrations toward the end, Divisadero is a satisfying read, and has moments of absolute wonder.
I have now read The English Patient, and oh God, let’s just say Ondaatje clearly got better with time. Abstract, slow, and uninteresting.