After several attempts at writing my own summary of the book, I decided to go with the description on the back of the book so that I can just jump into telling you what I thought about it. So here it is:
Joe Kavalier, a young Jewish artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdini-esque escape, has just smuggled himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague and landed in New York City. His Brooklyn cousin Sammy Clay is looking for a partner to create heroes, stories and art for the latest novelty to hit America—the comic book. Drawing on their own fears and dreams, Kavalier and Clay create the Escapist, the Monitor and Luna Moth, inspired by the beautiful Rosa Saks, who will become linked by powerful ties to both men. With exhilarating style and grace, Michael Chabon tells an unforgettable story about American romance and possibility.
There is so much I want to tell you about this amazing book that I barely know where to begin. So let’s start with what was initially the biggest stumbling block for me: comic books. I knew before I read this that it dealt extensively with comic books. Chabon has admitted to being a “fanboy” of the form, and my initial reluctance to tackle this 636-page book was mostly because I’ve never been a comic book reader and it seemed like a subject that might not hold my interest. If you have similar reservations, put them aside now.
Chabon is such a gifted writer and the comic book theme is interwoven so skillfully into the narrative that you’ll be utterly involved and absorbed in this book. In fact, Chabon does such a brilliant job evoking the pleasures and value of comic books that I found myself wanting to explore the form. (When I discovered that Chabon collaborated with various artists to create a series of Escapist comic books, I was thrilled. I found myself wishing for an Escapist comic to read as I was going along, and now I can get my dream realized. I suspect I shall be one of the few women in their 40s asking for an Escapist comic for their birthdays this year!)
The fact that Chabon uses the theme of escape in both the fictional comic book that Kavalier and Clay create and in the novel itself is pure genius. Everyone in this book is escaping something—whether it is the Escapist bursting out of heavy chains, Sammy trying to evade his sexual orientation, Rosa seeking a path out of domesticity, or Joe trying to sever the ties that bind him to Prague. I’m not a big fan of analyzing books; I tend to read for my own enjoyment and entertainment. But when a writer can so perfectly integrate a theme throughout a book, I find that it adds an additional layer of richness to the reading experience. I think every reader can relate to the concept of escape. We’ve all tried to escape from something in our own lives—be it a stifling home life, unrealistic expectations, a love affair gone bad, a political climate that oppressed us—so who among us couldn’t relate to characters who struggle mightily to escape their own demons, choices and environments?
The night he offered her the chance to draw “a comic book for dollies,” Rosa felt Sammy had handed her a golden key, a skeleton key to her self, a way out of the tedium of her existence as a housewife and a mother, first in Midwood and now here in Bloomtown, soi-distant Capital of the American Dream.
It is also easy to escape into Chabon’s writing. When I was reading the book, I took notes for myself as I read. One note read: “It is like Chabon has every word in the English language at his fingertips ready for use.” My first exposure to Chabon’s talent with words was when I read his collection of essays Manhood for Amateurs earlier this year. I was blown away by his writing in that book, and it was this (more than anything) that encouraged me to get over my fear of the comic book theme to read this book. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Chabon’s writing is an amazing thing. He has a gift for putting words together in a way that is surprising, playful and utterly satisfying. I sometimes talk about candy bar books and how they go down so easily but make you a little sick afterward. Reading a book by Michael Chabon is like sitting down for a gourmet feast that satisfies your soul. Yet, at the same time, his writing isn’t fussy and inaccessible. So, let me rephrase that: Reading a book by Michael Chabon is like sitting down for a gourmet feast of comfort foods … like eating the best macaroni and cheese you ever had in your life and finding out afterwards it tasted so good because the chef used black truffle oil in it.
There’s a blurb on the back of my copy from New York magazine that reads: “I’m not sure what the exact definition of a ‘great American novel’ is, but I’m pretty sure that Michael Chabon’s sprawling, idiosyncratic, and wrenching new book is one.” I have to say that I agree with this assessment. The book manages to incorporate the history of comic books, World War II, the immigrant experience, the “love that dare not speak its name,” the power and value of art, and the feel of New York City and its growing suburbs yet wraps it all around the involving story of two cousins and the woman who binds them together. At its center, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is about love, and the warm, beating heart of this book is what ultimately makes this such a satisfying read.
My Final Recommendation
Don’t let the comic book theme fool you, this is an accessible, satisfying, sprawling novel that will reward you with its brilliant use of the English language and a story that will simultaneously break and warm your heart. The theme of escape is interwoven brilliantly throughout the novel and makes for a rich, multi layered read. One of the closest contenders for the Great American Novel (Modern) that I’ve read.
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The Whys and Wheres: I got my copy from Paperback Swap almost two years ago. Initially, I got the book to read because it won the Pulitzer Prize, and I though I should read it. I’d also always meant to try a Michael Chabon book but always felt a little intimidated by them. Once I read Manhood for Amateurs, though, I knew I had to read this one.