The Physics of Sunset

Jane Vandenburgh, Author Pantheon Books $24 (304p) ISBN 978-0-679-42483-3
Since her highly praised first novel, Failure to Zigzag, Vandenburgh has kept readers waiting a decade for this second effort. A smart, witty, sadly ironic novel about neighbors in Berkeley who become lovers, this is an even more elegantly crafted and perceptive work. Rich with intelligence and feeling, it explores (and often satirizes) such themes as women's search for self-realization, the pretentiousness of the California lifestyle, the nature of marriage; there are also meaningful reflections on the principles of architecture and the theories of physics. Vandenburgh introduces several upper-middle-class couples who live in a canyon in the hills, weaving a textured skein of West Coast domestic life before she focuses on the man and woman in this circle who will eventually recognize each other as fated lovers. Despite his assimilated name, successful architect Alec Baxter thinks in the Yiddish phrases of his Queens boyhood and suffers from the echt-Jewish fears, guilt and panic about the direction of his life. He is drawn to reticent, melancholy poet Anna Bell-Shays years before her divorce; his own emotional estrangement from his cold, self-absorbed artist wife brings them together in irresistible passion. Despite his emotional Jewish sensibility and her WASP reserve, their intellectual interests coalesce around the field of physics, a theme that Vandenburgh develops with subtle and convincing skill. Coming after her cool dissection of several couples' marriages and her wickedly acerbic portraits of the cultural scene, Vandenburgh's depiction, in the last third of the novel, of Anna and Alec's affair is searing and poignant. Intensely erotic, its transports are tinged with pain--physical and emotional--and the knowledge of finality. In capturing a particular culture in the fragile environment of social and natural disorder (the 1989 earthquake and the 1991 wildfire occur during this time), Vandenburgh has also created a memorable portrait of fulfilled love and bereavement at its loss. Her compassion infuses this story with insight and grace. (June)
Reviewed on: 05/03/1999
Release date: 05/01/1999
Hardcover - 485 pages - 978-0-7862-2298-8
Paperback - 291 pages - 978-1-58243-100-0
Open Ebook - 294 pages - 978-1-58243-894-8
Show other formats
The Best Books, Emailed Every Week
Tip Sheet!