I finished my holiday break reading today. I curled up in bed by the heater and read the last 65 or so pages of Moonglow by Michael Chabon.
The novel centers around the life of Chabon’s grandfather, based mostly on interviews and research. That makes it sound like nonfiction, but Chabon uses his imagination to fill in the details and make it fictional. In true fictional format, he never tells you; he always shows you. It’s like reading a novel, except you know at least some of it really happened. The book jumps around anachronistically, showcasing different moments in Chabon’s grandfather’s life.
Some chief topics covered: Chabon’s grandfather fighting in World War II. Chabon’s grandfather’s fascination with space travel and rocketry, in the great American space age. Chabon’s grandfather surviving a brief stint in prison. And Chabon’s grandfather’s relationship with his wife, who was mentally ill, and his daughter. Warning – sexuality is explicit and sexual abuse is mentioned.
I would recommend this book. It was one of those most gripping novels I’ve read in a long time. I’ll say this for Chabon (and his grandfather), never once was I bored. Chabon is an expert at picking out the most fascinating aspects of his grandfather’s life, and at giving us a portrait not only of twentieth-century America but of just how fascinating one seemingly ordinary person’s life can be.
I was particularly fond of the way the grandmother was portrayed. Flawed, ill, and traumatized, she nevertheless managed to remain her own strong, interesting, and three dimensional character. She was quirky and eccentric, and in spite of all the odds, I ended up liking her.
All of the female characters were quite strong, actually. Chabon’s mother is portrayed as willful and morally upright; Sally, the woman Chabon’s grandfather dates after the death of his wife, is sassy and sarcastic. They all manage to be real, flesh and blood people, which you don’t see too terribly often in fiction. They were “strong” in an unusual way – strong in the sense of being interesting, not in the sense of being masculine or perfect.
It’s a very poignant and emotional book, but Chabon manages to paint an emotional portrait without once ever hitting you over the head with that emotion.
I would say the biggest thing you have to get past is the idea that Chabon is writing this novel – this troubled, sometimes violent, sometimes sexually explicit novel – about his real life family members. Chabon writes everything like it really happened, even the things he can’t possibly know, and you will as a reader be perpetually left wondering what really happened and what didn’t.
If you’re interested in a good read about troubled, flawed, three dimensional human beings, this is the book for you.