A starred or boxed review indicates a book of outstanding quality. A review with a blue-tinted title indicates a book of unusual commercial interest that hasn't received a starred or boxed review.
Showing a deep maturity of thought and craft, Watson (Montana 1948; White Crosses) surpasses himself in his sixth novel, an uncompromising, perfectly calibrated double portrait of two couples in rural Wisconsin in the 1950s. Ned Weaver is a famous artist, Henry House an orchard keeper. Ned, like many creative people, is self-absorbed and cruel to his adoring wife, Harriet, with whom he has two grown daughters. Harriet, ignoring his serial adultery, has long ago accepted that Ned's art is what matters most in the world; she has "rehearsed her role so well that not even she could discern a difference between performance and belief." Henry House and his wife, Sonja, are younger than the Weavers; Henry was raised picking apples, and Sonja came from Norway to Wisconsin when she was 12. As the novel begins, they are grieving the death of their young son, who collapsed mysteriously one summer day just outside Sonja's kitchen window. Invited to pose for Weaver, Sonja accepts, not for the money or because she is attracted to Weaver, though her motives are unclear even to herself. When Henry finds out from his cronies that Sonja has been posing in the nude, he is wild with jealousy and plots revenge. Ned's paintings of Sonja inevitably call to mind Andrew Wyeth's famous Helga series. But whatever the novel's inspiration, it is in no way limited by the constraints of fact. Sentences and chapters unfurl with a sense of inevitability, and the narrative possesses an uncommon integrity. When Ned first paints Sonja nude, he marvels at her beatific poise: "The carpenter picks up his hammer, the artist takes brush in hand. This woman shed her clothes, nakedness her craft and art." Watson composes this marvelous novel with the same assurance. Agent, Ralph Vicinanza.(Aug. 19)
Forecast:Watson has won his share of literary laurels, but his latest novel could be a contender for one of the major prizes. With a bit of handselling, it might match the commercial success of his previous big seller, Montana 1948.