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on 2 May 2012
Few novels include within their first dozen pages dialogue containing a plausible use of the phrase "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" - and fewer still are funny in the process. By the time the narrator's older brother is arguing about evolution with their Uncle Hans (an Iowa clergyman), Peter De Vries has already deftly sketched in the main characters of the Wanderhope household, and has set the sceptical tone for what will turn into a wonderful novel. The way in which Uncle Hans replies to Louie's question - "I am not impressed by big words" - gains him a moment of sympathy (after all, how many of us know what that phrase means?), which is then dissolved by the acerbic observation that this is a man who is always ready to bandy around words like "predestination" and "infralapsarianism".

The comic tone is set early on as well, when we learn that Don Wanderhope's father had accidentally emigrated from Holland. This is also cosmically absurd: the way in which such an important decision - in which country, on which continent, to live - can turn on the merest chance (Ben Wanderhope couldn't face the return voyage because of a "ghastly seasickness"). Chance events, of course, often determine tragic outcomes - lives cut short - and De Vries goes on to tell a moving story of love and loss and the "vanity (if not outrage) of trying to cage this dance of atoms".

Among the many things that appealed to me was the emphasis on the commonplace, on "the list of pleasures to be extorted from Simple Things" and on the idea "that uppermost among human joys is the negative one of restoration: not going to the stars, but learning that one may stay where one is". This is couched in the narrator's intensely personal experience, but it's a lesson we can all profit from, without having to go through the trials and tribulations of Don Wanderhope.

A more overt statement of his philosophy of life is included by the device of a request from the editors of his college paper: "I believe that man must learn to live without those consolations called religious, which his own intelligence must by now have told him belong to the childhood of the race. Philosophy can really give us nothing permanent to believe either; it is too rich in answers, each canceling out the rest. The quest for Meaning is foredoomed. Human life 'means' nothing. But that is not to say it is not worth living. ... Man has only his own two feet to stand on, his own human trinity to see him through: Reason, Courage, and Grace. And the first plus the second equals the third."

This would come across as didactic if it appeared on the first page, but by the time I reached this passage in the novel the character of Don Wanderhope was largely drawn, and this detail emerged naturally out of the story. It also shows the versatility of Peter De Vries: he's an author who can move from serious reflection to the more absurd kind of observation, in a flowing style that is fully joined up and never tiresome. In pondering the mysteries of life and death, "of miracles supplanted by scientific fact as conducive to reverence as the miracles", the twelve-year-old Don Wanderhope returns to what his older brother had said: "I thought I understood now the helplessness of newborn babes: they were weak, not because they were infants or tiny, but because they had just got through recapitulating a billion years of evolution. Enough to tucker anybody out!"

(I first came across this novel when it was mentioned in passing by Austin Dacey during a lecture he was giving on blasphemy. It's no accident that the theme of secular sacred values that runs through the De Vries is also found in Dacey's two books: Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life and The Future of Blasphemy: Speaking of the Sacred in an Age of Human Rights.)
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on 3 April 2015
Don is the son of strict Calvinists. Early life sees religious arguments between his parents and his uncle about orthodoxy and whether evolution is an insult to the creator. He rejects religion and is agnostic until his daughter develops leukaemia, which leads him to become atheist. Yet he is redeemed in a sense as he brings comfort to others who mourn his daughter’s death. An excellent and moving treatment of suffering and despair yet rugged persistence to go on with. life, to accept his daughter’s life for what it was - some poems are long, some short, but all are beautiful
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VINE VOICEon 2 December 2012
Peter de Vries is a humorist, but he also a prose stylist. The words in this book are funny and sad. It's a moving story of a man's setbacks and philosophical musings. It's elegant, witty and profound. I wish more people read Peter de Vries.
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on 30 January 2015
I found his prose a tiny bit stodgy at times but otherwise this is a very funny (and towards the final third heart breaking) novel. Well worth a read.
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on 4 January 2015
fab product great service.
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