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on 19 January 2014
A.N. Dyer is seventy-nine-years-old. As a young man he wrote a novel, I think it would be called a coming of age novel, called Ampersand. It became something of a classic in American literature, vying with Catcher in the Rye as the must-read novel for older teenagers. Dyer went on to write several other novels, though I don't think they achieved quite the cult status of Ampersand. By the time this story starts he has written nothing for several years and he is almost a recluse.

The story is narrated by Philip Topping, the son of Dyer's oldest friend, Charlie Topping. And it begins with Charlie's funeral at which Dyer is to give the eulogy. He arrives at the church with his youngest son, Andy, a seventeen-year-old boy who, we are told, was the result of a brief affair his father had with a Swedish au-pair girl. Dyer also has two much older sons, Richard and Jamie, but they are not at the funeral. Dyer sits in the front pew waiting for the ordeal of having to address the large congregation, but all he can worry about is the fact that Andy does not seem to be in the church. That is because Andy is waiting on the church steps for a twenty-four-year old girl with whom he has been conversing on the internet and whom he has arranged to meet outside the church. It is his profound wish that he will lose his virginity with the girl.

Andy's girl is late. He doesn't make it into the church. His father is desperately concerned. The eulogy is not what one might call a success, though as Dyer leaves the church he is still faced with a great many people who are eager to get him to sign their copies of Ampersand.

As I say, Andy is the youngest of the sons in the title of the novel. Richard was for many years a hopeless drug addict. But he is reformed. He devotes his life to counselling other drug addicts in California. He is married to another former drug addict and they have two children, Emmett and Chloe. Emmett is sixteen and plays an amusing part in the story later on. Richard has had no contact with his father for years. His children have never met their grandfather. Jamie is not married. He has devoted his life to filming death and poverty around the world, though he does not bother to sell the films. They just mount up in cardboard boxes. He never descended to the depths Richard plumbed but, unlike his brother, he still takes recreational drugs, despite his age.

Those are the sons. The Dyers are among America's elite. They are East Coast WASPS. Their world is a strange one, to most of us, populated by other famous and rich people. But, as you will have seen, they are a thoroughly dysfunctional family.

Dyer senior and Topping senior went to the same expensive school (the setting for Ampersand). Their sons also went there. Andy is still there at the time the story is set.

The novel begins relatively well. It looks as though it is going to be a realistic novel in the tradition of some of the great nineteenth century English novelists (who are mentioned rather too often). I, for one, was prepared to go along with Gilbert's theory that almost all WASPs are either rather obnoxious druggies or just plain stupid. But any claim to realism is lost, about half way through the book, when we come to what might be called the "Great Revelation". I shan't tell you what that revelation is. It is enough to say that it instantly moves the story into grotesque fantasy. As soon as we read it we understand that we are no longer reading believable fiction.

I am told that many American reviewers have given the book that coveted title "The Great American Novel", though not all are agreed on that (what I have called the Great Revelation has not been universally admired). The novel does have faults. To start with, it is far too long. It is, at times, horribly pretentious. There are long passages in which the author seems to be saying "look how clever I am, I can write about great works of art and great writers of the past and I can churn out frightfully high class prose effortlessly". Indeed, in one scene, where Dyer is being shown original manuscripts of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope, the intelligent reader will instantly think that what he is reading now is nowhere near as good as what those authors produced. They set out to entertain their readers, not to prove how superior they were. Sadly, Gilbert, though a very good writer, is plainly much more concerned to prove his own superiority than to give pleasure to readers (other than to those who want to boast they have been reading a "literary" novel).

The word is that Gilbert hopes his novel will win the Booker prize. If that happens it will say more about the lack of competition than about the worth of & Sons. He might, more realistically, stand a chance of winning the Literary Review's Bad Sex award. There are three or four sex scenes. The first is handled quite well. The others are just plain disgusting.

But I must not be too negative. There are some really wonderful passages in this book. Just as one is thinking of discarding it for ever, of throwing it in the fire because of some awful pretentious garbage, one comes across a gem of brilliant writing and insight. And it is often very funny. We do not feel much sympathy for the characters (I would exempt Philip, Emmett and Andy from that criticism), but they are well drawn. There are some excellent set pieces (the party in the Frick is beautifully and wittily described). And the end, when you finally get to it, is worth waiting for. Gilbert is, quite obviously, an exceptionally talented writer. But he does need a good editor with the courage to tell him to remove many thousands of unnecessary words and to cut down on the showing off.

My own theory is that good writers like Gilbert are being let down by the invention (in the latter half of the twentieth century) of a new genre of fiction called "literary". Too many publishers are eager to claim their products are literary, rather than just a good read. And clever authors are being encouraged to produce work which ought really to be found in Private Eye's Pseuds Corner rather than in readable novels.

I do not say you shouldn't buy and read this book. You will find some wonderful stuff within its covers, even if you are slightly disappointed by the dross. And, so long as he becomes less self-indulgent, Gilbert will, I am sure, be a great novelist one day.

POST SCRIPT: I wrote this review a while ago. I then thought I ought not to post it, because it was so negative about a book which had apparently been acclaimed by the critics as a masterpiece. Then I heard the book being discussed on the BBC's Saturday Review programme. Pretty well all my own complaints about the novel were made by the reviewers on that programme. It seems, though the consensus amongst critics in America is that Gilbert has produced the book of the decade, that English critics have not been won over. Anyway, I am now brave enough to post this review.

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VINE VOICEon 13 January 2014
Once in a while a novel comes along which makes you realise why we read, & Sons is that novel.

On 5th Avenue at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Phillip Topping is attending his father, Charlie Topping's funeral, however this is no ordinary funeral as Charlie was a life long friend of A.N. Dyer, a renowned author whose novel Ampersand set the literary world alight and has become the 'Catcher in the Rye' of its time. Dyer now very reclusive is attending and the funeral is packed with fans hoping to claim a signature or a piece of the great man. Dependent upon his youngest son Andy, Dyer has become convinced that he will be attending another funeral very shortly, only this time it will be his own, and so he decides to bring together his 3 sons in order to sort out his affairs and right some wrongs which have happened over his and their lifetime. We witness past, present and future events through the ever present narrator Phillip Topping which will have repercussions for the Dyers and the Toppings and we soon realise that Phillip himself may not just be a casual observer and narrator within this tale.

& Sons deserves to become a modern American classic work of literature. David Gilbert's writing is tremendous, his prose has a naturalistic flow to it and is incisive, witty and just a dream to read, in fact A.N. Dyer would be proud to have produced & Sons! An absolute joy, what more can I say.


This was my read of last year, and I am happy to say I have all ready seen that it might be nominated for the 2014 Booker prize. Genius!
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on 15 May 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I read some reviews of this book before buying it and thought it sounded like a very good read. However I don't think this book lives up to that expectation.

Some good sections, some interesting ideas (especially a more fanciful notion that arises later on through the book) but wow, these are some unlikeable people! All the main characters had very little to connect you to them - basically they're an assortment of bullies, underachievers and frustrated losers. The main narrative character is so wet and miserable that you just feel like reaching into the book and giving him a good shake! I also thought that David Gilbert's portrayal of the teenagers fell into the usual trap of writing dialogue / thoughts that sound nothing like most teenagers on earth. One minute Andy (the young son) is using lines such as "like the Met on Eightieth and Fifth, with the knights and stuff?" and then the next has thoughts such as "death existing as gesture rather than extinction"! I always find inconsistencies like that pull you straight out of the narrative and remind that this is a piece of writing rather than an immersive story. I suppose you could argue that we are seeing Andy through the prism of the narrator's writing but it still doesn't ring very true for me.

Overall I would say that it's not a terrible book but wasn't the wonderful piece of writing I was hoping for.
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on 21 August 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I will admit straight away - I did not finish this book; I found it quite laborious at times, and the characters pretty unengaging. Gilbert knows he can write an expressive, pretty flamboyant sentence - but after a while it just felt like showing-off to me.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 31 January 2014
This is a father-and-sons story set in a cultured and contemporary Manhattan. It opens with aged, venerated author A. N. Dyer about to give the eulogy at his best friend Charlie Topping's funeral.

Andrew Dyer has three sons: reformed drug-addict Richard, underground film-maker Jamie and a much younger third son, teenager Andy, supposedly the outcome of a mid-life affair that ended Dyer's happy marriage. But Andy's provenance is a little more complicated than that. It is Topping's son Philip who tells the story, a narrative construct that only works up to a point.

Philip worships the reclusive, cantankerous old Dyer, wishing he was his own father. Eaten up with envy, he tries to ingratiate himself with the family, to grating effect. As the story-teller, he seems to possess unrealistic powers - knowing, seeing and hearing everything the family does and says. This either makes him a supremely unreliable narrator or it is an unnecessary and somewhat overused artifice which occasionally intrudes on the authenticity of the narrative.

Other than this one quibble, David Gilbert's writing throughout is terrific. He is clearly very talented and he peoples his book with thoroughly convincing, three-dimensional male characters. His females are given short shrift; but then again, this story is not about women. If you enjoy erudite 'east-coast' prose and an interesting plot with insights into the world of a successful author whose life and talent are on the wane, then I can recommend this as a very good, very grown-up read. 4.5*
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Decades of friendship end with the death of Charles Topping, ailing acclaimed author A.N. Dyer coaxed out of seclusion to speak at the funeral. He himself knows little time remains. Fame is assured with fourteen major novels - the first, "Ampersand", now seemingly part of America's DNA. What, though, of his personal life? What of Charles's son Philip, his own sons Richard, Jamie and seventeen year old Andy? Fences need to be mended, records set straight.

Hopes were high for "& Sons" after all the praise lavished, critics ecstatic about such a sparkling, exhilarating ride. Sadly I am one of those for whom it proved a lengthy, tedious journey. For me it seemed the product of head rather than heart, emphasis on ultra-cleverness with words, literary allusions, puns, characters forever speaking for ages or trying to cap each other's "wit". The words swamped. Certain sections irritatingly just went on and on (pretzels anyone?). Nowhere was there anybody to warm to, the four sons all rather remote and uninvolving. A test in such matters is reaction if someone dies. If there is no sense of loss, this surely indicates inadequate impact has been made?

A.N. Dyer himself comes over most strongly - he, old and sick, rarely venturing from his study, forever speedily typing between long naps. Extracts from his "Ampersand" intrigue. (For portraying teenage angst, it ranks alongside Salinger's masterpiece - the latter often preferred by schools as so much shorter). There are amusing glimpses of Hollywood's eagerness to gain filming rights, whilst others hope to cash in on the writer's collected notes and manuscripts. Abounding are dry observations, the family declared essentially a collection of strangers with a few things in common.

Generally I found here a sadness, an emptiness. What is life? What of worth remains after ashes have been scattered?

Others discovered so much that delighted. Despite conscientiously reading to the very end, I have to confess this a very rare instance when a novel left me cold.
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on 25 January 2015
This is very nearly very good, but... As others have said below, it is brilliantly written but at some point that starts to wear off because there is nothing holding it together. It reads like a string of characterisations and I kept thinking that NOW the story or plot or drama or whatever would start, or there would be some major relevation that for example the main character A N Dyer had not actually written the book on which Gilbert's concept is based ("Ampersand") but nothing like that happens. Full marks for skill, even virtuosity, but it is not enough.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 10 February 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The narrator of "& Sons" is Philip Topping, a failed father, husband, teacher, and writer, who has an unhealthy obsession with A. N. Dyer, a Great American Novelist and his father's best friend. I was instantly immersed in the world of Dyer and his sons, savouring Gilbert's dissection of their privileged East Coast lifestyle and the concomitant literary landscape. The reader, however, cannot become too involved without being reminded of who the narrator is (a man with his own literary pretensions) and this slippery pitiful character adds an extra layer of enjoyment. All in all "& Sons" is a meaty satisfying read to which my mind can't help returning.
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on 9 May 2015
I'm afraid I join those that have given up with this one. I think a good story is there, but it's just too difficult to read, I keep getting to the bottom of the page, looking back and thinking what was that about! I don't remember the last time I've given up on a book.
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VINE VOICEon 7 March 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This novel comes laden with praise from critics and famous novelists but I found it tiresome: tricksy, with its facsimiles of barely legible letters, it seems self-indulgent. The narrator is a cypher in whom I could not invest emotionally. Perhaps it's the sort of thing that I would have enjoyed when I was young, but now it feels pretentious.

I dare say it's my fault but I can't recommend it.
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