In the Land of the Living - Austin Ratner

This book is hard for me to review. Parts of it were so overwhelmingly wonderful, that I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be reading it, thanks to a NetGalley ARC. But at other times, I was disappointed. I have to admit I checked the author’s bio midway through because I was absolutely convinced that he had to be a doctor, or at least he was one before he started writing. I felt a similar way when I read Cutting for Stone. So yes, I was biased when I was correct. Some of the things that lead me to believe that may only be in the advanced copy I read (I’m hoping). For example, there are a lot of Latin phrases that we are supposed to understand without any context or translation. Also, as a proud and fierce user of the kindle dictionary, I felt slighted that so many words I did not know in this book simply did not exist in the dictionary. These were not typos, but often names of diseases that were mentioned as asides and inside jokes; jokes that I, obviously did not get. I felt this way too about many of the overblown chapter headings.

 

This book made me uncomfortable. There are a lot of dead fathers to please in this book, but each son seems to know exactly what would make his (dead) father happy. Isidore, the son of a loving mother (who died young) and a horrible father, becomes a character of almost mythic proportions, but I don’t really understand why. While his story is an immigrant success story, it is not unique or extraordinary. Unlike other characters in this book, he does not care about pleasing his father. The fact that their relationship remained strangely unresolved seemed to echo a later them in the book.

 

The last part of the book is the story of a road trip with Isidore’s two estranged sons. For two people who can barely stand each other, it is almost odd that the author attempts this late in the game to make them seem like regular siblings. The book’s description calls the family “lovably neurotic”, but I didn’t find a whole lot of love anywhere in this book, except in the few pages that are from Isidore’s journal about his young son. The now-grown sons have a “poor us, we lost our father” complex, despite the fact that their mother remarried when they were both still young, and, by all accounts, they were lovingly raised by their step-father. Poor Leo, he didn’t get into Yale! Of course, he proudly did absolutely nothing in school besides attend classes and take tests. I bet the thousands of kids who do extracurricular sports, work after school, and volunteer, might disagree with his inflexible sense of “destiny”. For the most part, I found this family more neurotic than lovable.

 

I see on Goodreads that people say his writing reminds them of John Irving, but I don’t get that. I think that maybe the quirkiness he tried to put into his characters, along with the odd quotes and chapter headings, is where this comes from. (Not to mention that most of these characters go a step past quirky, and close on to crazy.) But in Irving’s writing, this is merely an aspect of character, it is not all there is. This book read like a collection of stories that were possibly related, but, in the end, it did not gel for me into a cohesive narrative.