The Astral
Kate Christensen
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Buy *The Astral* by Kate Christensen online

The Astral
Kate Christensen
320 pages
June 2011
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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I was initially enthralled by Christensen’s crisp, insightful novel and its crumbling portrayal of a poet's life, the webbing of memory tied to a fracturing marriage. There's no doubt Christensen persistently charmed me with her delightful prose, but as her story unfolded in tender tones of accusation and denial, I was left pining for the sardonic wit and self-deprecating humor that made the author's previous novels such riveting reads.

Considering himself “an old man” at fifty-seven, Harry Quirk lives in the Astral apartments, an enormous, six-story castle-fortress, a red-brick tenement that is compelling to look at from without but “blighted from within.” Harry's is a hardscrabble existence, cobbled together from an ungenerous life of the mind and a bare-bones career. For many years he has relied on the comfort, security, and financial support of his Catholic Mexican wife, Luz.

When we first meet him, Harry’s funds are small and dwindling. Locked in a silent struggle that exists well beyond social conventions, Harry has pledged his life to metered and rhymed verse and a refined veneer which has recently come under assault from Luz, who doesn’t want to hear her husband’s excuses and lies anymore. She has abruptly destroyed his latest poetry collection, convinced that the verses spoke of his affair with his best friend,Marion, even though the writing was totally imaginary.

For the severely religious Luz, long-ago paranoia over Harry’s faithfulness begins to resurface in the form of overheard conversations that fuel her fires of outrage. Luz is positive Marion’s behavior is disingenuous, but she also knows what Harry is capable of. Luz’s electric, sweeping fury echoes throughout Harry's life as she proceeds to uproot him from his home. As Harry tries to reason with her, he is confronted with the impossibility of convincing his wife that his relationship with Marion is just a friendship.

Infusing her novel with a 21st-century urban slant (albeit with the flavor of Greenpoint, Brooklyn), the author carefully maneuvers Harry’s varied personal dramas with Luz and Marion as he seeks comfort with daughter Karina. Selfless and earnest, outraged by waste and pollution, Karina gives her father shelter but remains hell-bent on doing whatever she can to ease the Earth’s burdens. Between his ruined marriage, his lost poetry and his search for a job, Harry learns that his son, Hector, has joined a shady religious cult and is calling into question everything he has ever believed about himself and his family.

Hector's life lies in stark contrast to his father, who ponders the fact that his former dreams of "flaming literary glory" are now probably a small “burning heap of charred rags.” Although the relationship between Hector and Harry is essential to the story, the scenes involving Hector’s cult were a bit too extraneous, doing little to move the narrative onward when the focus should really have stayed on Harry’s unfolding consciousness and his passionate attempts to circumvent loss and displacement.

That issue aside, the author’s prose is fluid and magical. From “the ochre light playing on the faces” of the two women Harry loves most to the “sun’s silky tenderness” glittering and pulsing, the novel is a fitting tribute to the brute realities of a poet's existence and of a man coping with the challenges and transitions of middle-age while also confronting the loss of his charms and prospects.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2011

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