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Waxwings Hardcover – 15 Aug 2003

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; First Edition edition (15 Aug. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330413201
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330413206
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.2 x 3.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,777,207 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Jonathan Raban's Waxwings is a canticle for the late 1990s told through the intertwined lives of several Seattlites. In the novel, the city becomes a microcosm of America at the turn of the millennium, and Raban's characters--all in some way tragic "tourists" in the world--are rendered with a compassion that redeems their personal failings.

Thomas Janeway is a British novelist and professor of literature at the University of Washington whose life is coming apart in his adopted home. He deeply loves his four-year-old son, Finn, but his wife, Beth, is caught up in the dot-com explosion, and the couple has grown apart. As Seattle erupts in the WTO riots and terrorist plots, Janeway's life crumbles around him. His wife leaves him, his house becomes a shambles of half-completed reconstruction and his son is caught fighting in school. When he becomes a "person of interest" in the abduction and possible murder of a local girl, he is put on leave with pay from the university. Yet, Raban does not let Janeway--or any of his characters--wallow in self-pity. They all try to move forward with life, and even Janeway "the suspect" finds sympathetic allies in surprising places.

At one point in the novel, Janeway lectures his students on the "generosity" of VS Pritchett, saying that the writer believed "in a general redistribution of verbal wealth, in taking good lines from the haves, and giving them to the have-nots". This "liberal realism" also characterises Raban's work. Raban treats all of his characters, from Janeway to Finn, with patience and balance. He fully inhabits each and tells fragments of the story from the perspective of Beth, Tom, Finn and even Tom's illegal-immigrant contractor, Chick. One narrative infuses another, lending the novel a Dickensian universality. Together the disparate voices perfectly capture the particulars of a place, Seattle, at a unique moment in American history. --Patrick O'Kelley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


...intensely visualised and beautifully written... an absorbing read, its prose fastidious and finely textured. -- Sam Leith in Daily Telegraph, September 2003

His views, ironic and humane, are always acute; always illuminating. His prose - agile, musky, particular - is a treasure... -- Colin Greenland in Guardian, September 2003

Incisive... acute... hilarious... piercing... a searingly accurate portrait. -- Stephen Amidon in Sunday Times, September 2003

The opening is marvellous...cogent and impressive. -- David Robson in Sunday Telegraph, September 2003

Waxwings is zestfully written and full of deftly humorous touches... -- DJ Taylor in Independent, September 2003

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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 31 Aug. 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A new book by Jonathan Raban is enough of an event for me to order it pre-publication. This is a classic narrative novel with no fancy postmodern glitz, written in Raban's usual luminous, classic style -- as one critic said, he is incapable of writing a dull sentence. His characters are real, three-dimensional human beings who rise vividly from the page and keep you turning pages to find out what happens to them.
It's set in Seattle at the turn of the millennium, and tells the intertwined stories of two immigrants -- comfortably-off, Hungarian-English academic Tom Janeway, and illegal Chinese immigrant Chick. Their contrasting experiences give Raban the opportunity to leap from glitzy dot-coms and paper millionaires to slummy docklands and homeless people's encampments, showing his usual empathy with a wide range of people and environments. In some ways, it's reminiscent of David Lodge, but Raban's writing is more sensitive and his characters more rounded. The way he builds up relationships between his characters is utterly convincing, and at the end, without any drama, or anything really being resolved, you get a feeling that there is some kind of epiphany in both Tom and Chick's lives. And it isn't till the last page that you find out why it's called Waxwings! The last two paragraphs are simply beautiful.
It's not his best book, but I stayed up late to finish it. First of a series of three, so I look forward to the rest -- but knowing Raban's pace of writing I will have to be patient ...
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Zimmermann on 10 Oct. 2006
Format: Paperback
I hadn't read anything by Raban before but I loved this book - a warm-spirited and enjoyable novel.

Set in Seattle in the dotcom boom of 1999-2000, the main character is Tom Janeaway, who is surrounded by a series of other mainly male supporting characters - Chick the Chinese immigrant, Detective Nagel, the opportunistic novelist David Scott-Rice, the lawyer Hamish McTurk, Tom's son Finn. There's also his partner, Beth.

As I start to write down the list of characters I realise that much of the pleasure of the book springs from Raban's ability to evoke a broad cast of characters - and to bring to life their fumbling attempts to connect, interact and (to coin a dotcom sort of phrase) transact. One peculiar gift Raban has is for describing people's smiles.

Much of the writing is vivid. There's a scene when, soon after separating from his partner, Tom decides to take up smoking again:

"There was nostalgic pleasure in disrobing the box of its cellophane wrapping and tweaking the foil covering aside to expose the triple-banked, cork-coloured muzzles of the cigarettes."

Highly recommended.
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Format: Paperback
Waxwings by Jonathan Raban succeeds at every level. It's one of the best novels I have ever read. Its apparent simplicity continually reveals and interprets the complex, nuanced relationships we have with identity, individuality, family and aspiration. It's how we manage our inescapable selfishness that seems to count.

The principal characters are not Mr and Mrs Average. Tom is a university literature specialist who does regular radio talks. He's also overseeing an unlikely creative writing project for a man with money who is always in the air. Beth, Tom's wife, is a high flier in high tech. She works for a Seattle start-up dot com that's trying to bring navigable reality to an increasingly virtual world. She's the type that gets paid in options, optionally, despite working every minute of her life. Their little boy, Finn, named in recognition of Irish links, survives the careering whirlwind of the parental environment extremely well. It's easy to imagine the organised chaos of their old-style house, no doubt deliberately chosen for something Tom and Beth agreed to label character.

Chick is Chinese. At the book's start, he has successfully stowed away in a trans-Pacific container aboard a ship being piloted into dock. Others in the black interior have died en route, the rest captured by immigration officials. But Chick is resourceful and motivated. He survives, a keen if illegal immigrant, prepared to make a life for himself. His pithy existence admits no free time. His devotion to self-advancement is tunnel-vision complete, even if it means occasionally eating out of trash cans.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By John Fitzpatrick on 8 Aug. 2012
Format: Paperback
I have read virtually all of Raban's books - fiction and non-fiction - and, as his novel "Foreign Land" is one of my favorites, I have tended to give him the benefit of the doubt even though much of his work is unimpressive.

However, I can't be remotely charitable about this novel which is a lazy, self-indulgent narrative that should never have been published.

It is set in Seattle at the turn of the millennium and brings together two immigrants to the US - an illegal Chinese and a legal Englishman.

The reader is supposed to believe that, within a few days of his arrival, the Chinese is running a business in which a group of Mexicans carry out repair work on the homes of affluent Americans.

While the Chinese is, at least, doing some real work, the Englishman is a useless academic at a minor college contributing nothing to his new homeland.

He is quaint as joke Englishmen in the US always are. He describes a detective as a "good egg", quotes Swift, Shakespeare and all those other old bores and tells his son - called Finn, incidentally - bedtime stories about a nasty character called Mr. Wicked whereas his politically correct American wife does not want the boy to eat sweets or watch too much television.

Other "characters" include an alcoholic English writer who is trying to get our hero's college to pay for him to make a reading tour of the US and a mysterious millionaire Indian business tycoon who is constantly flying and communicates by mobile phones which always break down so our hero never knows what he wants.

These - and other characters - flutter in and out with no purpose other than to fill pages.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 24 reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Move over Jonathan Franzen 30 Jan. 2004
By Anonyma - Published on
Format: Hardcover
If you fell for the hype of Franzen's "The Corrections" and were disappointed, if you thought "Bonfire of the Vanities" covered interesting territory but read like a screenplay instead of a novel, if you appreciated Roth's "American Pastoral," and admired Hamilton's "Map of the World" but couldn't handle the heartbreak -- then by all means read Waxwings. It is a masterpiece.
This is the first book I've read by Mr. Raban, and on the basis of a few of the lukewarm reviews posted here, I can only assume that he previously wrote for a different type of audience.
Waxwings is great literature: a fascinating incarnation of "the great American novel" and a more appropriate recipient of all the buzz The Corrections received. The story is engaging and unpredictable; the writing flawless, elegant, acrobatic, funny, and well worth studying.
I bow at your feet, Mr. Raban: I'd like to send you a dozen roses. (Every page is a wonder, but I was particularly moved by the interaction of the very true-to-life boy and his goofy dog. It reminded me of the snippets of inspired dialogue in Mill on the Floss.)
Is the beginning slow? I'll come clean. I didn't warm to the heavy boat talk in the first eight pages, but after that I couldn't put the book down.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Nice work by Raban 17 Oct. 2003
By David P - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Having read most of Raban's non-fiction I was curious about his skill as a novelist. Waxwings for the most part succeeds. It has some terrific (sometimes piercingly funny) writing and all the elements of a classic English novel (a little bit of Thomas Hardy, a little bit of Dickens...). The characters are interesting and believable when they need to be, and just enough over the top to create some truly funny moments (the subplot is riotously funny... been there, seen that) in the midst of what is really a rather sobering tale.
And it is a serious story: by the latter half of the story we are fully engaged and understand the kind of humiliation and anger that Tom, the protagonist, must be going through.
But I will say that I found the first half to be drifting somewhat; the book doesn't really find its compass until page 129, when Tom first encounters the scrappy immigrant Chick on his front porch. Prior to that, I found a lot to be distracted by in the frequent invoking of Seattle Insider references. I'm a lifelong resident of the place but even for me there is little (if any) mental image I get from names like The Painted Table or Terrafazione. What do these place or product names tell the reader, if anything, about this particular story? For someone not fluent in the local vocabulary they say nothing, and for those of us who live here these place names invoke their own stories, which may be quite unrelated to the story in which they now appear. (For example I have my own quite vivid impressions of Waldo's Tavern... which simply add to my sense of distraction and confusion when Tom somehow arrives there, quite far off course, at the end of his self-absorbed hike on the Sammamish Trail.)
As a result, rather than enjoy the book as the good story it is I found myself asking, at least at the start, whether the goal had been to write a satirical book about the competitive, brand-aware era of Seattle's fleeting dot-com fortune and whether perhaps the slowly unfolding story was an afterthought. This turned out to be a wrong initial impression - this is a serious novel with serious themes - but it took rather long to get to get past the distractions of the first few chapters. During these early sections it seems as though Tom, and to a lesser extent his estranged wife, are being defined not so much through their actions or thoughts but instead through the places and things that they encounter every day: Tom is an NPR commentator; he reads the P-I; he teaches in the MFA program at the UW and he drives a Volkswagen (but of course) in contrast to his wife's new Audi. Their irresponsible babysitter is named Courtney (but of course). This is a small criticism, but when I'm given that many labels (or product placements, if you'll accept the term) I start to feel edgy.
But those are small nits, really. Perhaps Raban really is striving for satire, in a Babbit sort of way. Anyway, after Page 129 the book really comes alive as a novel; it's a good read and I had trouble putting it down.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
rich in character and theme 14 Nov. 2003
By B. Capossere - Published on
Format: Hardcover
If you've read some of the earlier reviews, I can attest that several of the criticisms have a point: he is at times overly preachy, the book does have a slow beginning, and he does occasionally drop too many brand or local names. That's the bad and it isn't much in comparison to what I found to be a wonderfully paced and peopled novel.
To begin with, while I can see how some might call the opening slow or drifting, I found its pace more pleasingly meditative rather than annoyingly slow. And as for its place in the novel, it may not seem to make much sense as you're reading it in terms of what the bookjacket or a review led you to think the novel is about, but once you've gotten into the heart of the novel, those opening pages read much differently. Their characters may have disappeared, but their tone and their content and their thematic underpinnings remain like a haunting echo. An echo which is nicely and playfully emphasized by a literary mini-seminar given by the main character with regards to a similar opening in a better known work.
As for the preachiness, yes, at times Raban could have hit us a little more lightly or a little less frequently with the absurdity of the dot-com bubble, but it makes for such a rich and tempting target that it's easy to see how he could fall into that trap. And since almost all his hits are smack on target and funny as well, I'll give him the over-indulgence. The same holds true for the brand-name dropping.
So much for the book's weaknesses. As for the strengths, they are plentiful. The major character, Tom, is a Hungarian-born, British expat who has found himself at the start of the book in a surprisingly happy life--he loves both his wife and small son, enjoys both the responsibilities and lack of responsibilities his job as a college professor bring, and is in love with both the larger setting of Seattle and the smaller one of his old home with his wide-girth timber shoring up the foundations (it gives nothing away to say the house isn't quite as solid as it seems on the surface).
One by one the facets of his life which he has so taken for granted are either taken from him and changed--his wife leaves him, his relationship with his son changes, his house betrays him, his employer dumps him "temporarily" until the small matter of a major crime he may or may not be a suspect in is resolved. Through it all, start to finish, Tom is painted in rich, believable detail--from his tightly-written humorous pieces for NPR to his Mister Wicked bedtime stories to his tendency to develop a heavy Hungarian accent when he speaks to his mother on the phone to his obliviousness to what is happening around him (and even to his oblivousness of what things to change when he decides he does need to start making a change).
The other character, Chick, is drawn more starkly but just as sharply. Where Tom lends himself to meandering eloquence, Chick, a Chinese illegal immigrant who survived over a week in a cargo container where two of the dozen-plus men died, is all business. Illegal underground economy business, but all business. His dialogue is short and sharp and his language is stripped of all of Tom's pretensions and floweriness. In contrast to Tom's slow, passive, dimly-felt fall, Chick is all lift and action and aspiration. He moves steadily and forcefully up the ranks of the underground economy so that by the time he and Tom meet, he is more master of the situation than Tom. What brings them together is Tom's house, which Tom agrees to have Chick "and his Mexicans" fix up (and as we've seen, sometimes a house is more than a house).
These two are the focus of the vast majority of the novel. Tom's wife suffers somewhat in comparison in terms of depth of character; at times she is painted too easily in broad dot-com strokes, but just when you think she might be falling into two-dimensions Raban rescues her with a beautiful scene or moment. The same is less true of her boss, but he is such a minor character that it doesn't matter much. Another secondary character, a fellow Brit-writer, is as richly drawn though in far less space and adds a good sense of comic relief at appropriate times.
Plot is another strength. As already mentioned, the book opens in a somewhat odd way and the book continues to take pleasingly strange twists and turns. It's a domestic novel. No, it's a coming-of-age (though very, very late) novel. No, it's a mystery. Tone is constantly shifting throughout and Raban handles it all effortlessly, shifting humorous gears, for instance, from gently reflectively funny to observationally funny to biting satire to "why did the chicken cross the playground?"
Thematically, the book's richness starts on page one and continues all the way to the waxwings image which closes the book. Imagery, symbol, metaphor, parallel characters or events, all of these are the tools employed by Raban in conveying his themes and though as earlier mentioned some may seem a bit obvious, other are not quite so and overall the effect is that of a multi-layered, carefully wrought piece of intelligent literature, one that settles about the reader slowly, like a flock of birds or motes of asbestos dust. As far as that ending, I personally don't find it to be quite the neat resolution that some have said, or quite the obvious message as others have mentioned. Like much of what came before, I found it a pleasant surprise.
After reading about five or six books in a row, all of which were disappointingly mediocre at best, simply bad at worst, Waxwings felt like a rejuventating bath in the luxury of literature. Highly recommended.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Meandering and Literary, but engaging 10 Jan. 2005
By Catherine Cheek - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I don't usually go for the 'literary' type novels, caring more for story than for prose, but I decided to give this a go anyway. Having chosen it at random, I had no previous expectations, and was pleasantly surprised to find it well-set in one of my favorite cities. Tom, the protagonist, is richly drawn and sympathetic. His wife Beth, less well drawn, seems to be there mostly to provide Tom with conflict.

The story wanders through the first half of the book, and the plot goes here or there without any guide map. Is it about Tom's relationship with the Chinese roofer? Is it about his relationship issues? Is it about the fateful walk he takes? The reviewers didn't seem to know either, and I don't blame him. At the end of the book, I didn't know what it was about, and couldn't easily explain what had happened.

Does it matter? No. Tom felt real to me, and Raban didn't let his beautiful prose get in the way of the story. After a hundred pages, I knew I wanted to read it to the end, and at the end, I felt happy with the ride. What else do we expect from a novel?
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
A pleasant weekend read? Yes. High lit? Nope. 3 Jan. 2005
By Jeremy Anderson - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Like a few other reviewers on this site, I was drawn in by the fact that Waxwings takes place in my hometown. Raban is on a bit of a roll. Waxwings has sold well, and even appeared briefly on stage here at the Book-It Repertory Theatre.

Waxwings kept me engaged for four evenings of reading. It's fast, enjoyable, and I kept turning the pages to see how the lives of Tom, Beth, Chick and the rest were coming along. It's interesting, pleasant, and kept me largely away from the TV set. For that it gets 3 stars.

Where the book falls down is as anything other than a pleasant light read. Tom is the only character in the book with any depth to speak of. Everyone else seems two-dimensional. Likewise, late-90s Seattle, which seems to be Raban's overarching focus, is hit with too much unnecessary detail, and too little to fill in the lay of the land to anyone who isn't intimately familiar with our fair burg. Where is Queen Anne? Who lives there? Is Torrefazzione a beloved former haunt of Raban's, or just a Starbucks with a funny Italian name? Even the University of Washington, where Raban spends a fair amount of the novels time and no small quantity of barbs seems barely fleshed out.

James Joyce said famously that if Dublin burned down, the city could be reconstructed from his books. In Waxwings, only Tom Janeway's rotting Victorian snaps into focus. The rest seems fuzzy and undefined.
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