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'May We Be Forgiven': A Story Of Second Chances

A.M. Homes is a writer I'll pretty much follow anywhere because she's indeed so smart, it's scary; yet she's not without heart. It's been a while since her last book, the 2007 memoir The Mistress's Daughter, which is certainly the sharpest and most emotionally complex account of growing up adopted that I've ever read. Her latest book is a novel, May We Be Forgiven, and it returns her to blighted fictional terrain she's wandered through before: that is, the nightmare-scape of contemporary suburbia as seen through the eyes of a middle-aged man who's been stripped — Lear-like — of family, job and belief.

Ordinarily, a plot synopsis like that would make me roll my eyes, but I don't — because this is A.M. Homes and I know I've got to watch her every move. Homes' suburbia is a place where yawning sinkholes will suddenly open up in front lawns, swallowing cliched plotlines and opening portals to other dimensions. After the first page or so of a Homes story, your next stop is always the Twilight Zone.

Consider the way this novel blasts off. Chapter 1 introduces us to our hero, 48-year-old Harry Silver, who's writhing through yet another Thanksgiving dinner at the crowded table of his rich and powerful younger brother, George. Here's the deadpan style in which Harry, looking around the room, assesses his niece and nephew:

Within the next 15 pages, however, the rug is completely pulled out from under this mundane Thanksgiving table, and the atmosphere within the extended family becomes more Norman Bates than failed Norman Rockwell. Brother George, who's always had anger management issues, goes haywire and murders his wife who, by the way, was in bed with Harry at the time. Harry, then, becomes the legal guardian of those two listless children while, at the same time, coping with the fact that his own wife is now divorcing him. This screwball tragedy gathers further force when Harry — a part-time professor of history specializing in the field of "Richard Nixon Studies" — is fired by his university. The history department chair explains to Harry that:

A.M. Homes is a writer of novels and television screenplays. Her previous books include <em>The Mistress's Daughter </em>and <em>The End of Alice.</em>
Marion Ettlinger / Viking Adult
Viking Adult
A.M. Homes is a writer of novels and television screenplays. Her previous books include The Mistress's Daughter and The End of Alice.

By making Harry's field of specialization "Nixon Studies," Homes is directly nodding to one of her literary mentors, Don DeLillo, whose classic novel White Noise featured a professor of "Hitler Studies." DeLillo actually has a walk-on in this novel, as do Julie Nixon Eisenhower and David Remnick, the real-life editor of The New Yorker.

By now, I can no longer avoid using the dread adjective "postmodern" in describing May We Be Forgiven. Obviously, Homes writes in a style that violates the boundaries between fact and fiction, satire and earnest despair. Beneath all the po-mo trimmings, however, she serves up an entertaining, old-fashioned American story about second chances. No wonder Richard Nixon is the presiding icon here; if Nixon can be rehabilitated, anyone can!

Indeed, by the end of this sweeping (if, sometimes, too digressive) novel, Harry fights his way out of alienation and assembles a vibrant alternative family around that holiday table. May We Be Forgiven may feature Homes' distinctively off-beat humor and jagged storylines, but she's a softie at heart. Her writing is strange, to be sure, but it's also deeply imbued with that kind of It's A Wonderful Life-type belief in redemption that we Americans will always be suckers for, and rightly so.

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Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.