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"None of us survive our imperfections.",
This review is from: Oxygen (Paperback)
(4.5 stars) Revealing the final days of Alice Valentine, a former headmistress who is being attended by her sons and closest friends, Andrew Miller's thoughtful novel Oxygen remains remarkably hopeful, never descending into the bathos of so many other end-of-life novels. Alice's dying, though realistically described, becomes the fulcrum upon which the novel studies three other characters as they gain new insights into their own lives. All of them have some "unfinished business" with which they have not come to terms, and as these characters reminisce privately about their own pasts, the novel goes far beyond the customary focus on the meaning of life and death to include each character's secret failures, the guilt accompanying these, the nature of true happiness, what it requires to become a "successful" human being. Ultimately, Miller's characters ask, "Who are we?"
Alice's elder son Larry, a handsome former tennis champion now living in the US, has starred in a TV series, now canceled. His alcohol and cocaine consumption have jumped, leaving him in financial straits, and his marriage is in trouble. By keeping his California life secret from Alice, Larry remains the apple of her eye. The least sensitive among the people at Brooklands, Larry wants to tell his mother that her vision of him is false - and the fact that he has sunk to a new low with his latest film project weighs heavily upon him.
Younger son Alec, a thin aesthete, works as a translator for Laszlo Lazar, a Hungarian playwright living in Paris who is working on a new play. At some point in the past, Alec has had a mini-breakdown, but despite his own problems and the pressure of his work, he has been attending his mother. Still desperate for Alice's praise, Alec has his mother's best interests at heart, but he is squeamish about illness and the details of dying, and is guilt-ridden because he cannot make himself attend to all her physical needs.
Laszlo Lazar, a Hungarian playwright living in Paris, fought during the Hungarian Freedom uprising and was the only one of his brigade to survive, but he feels guilty about a close friend whose death he blames on himself. Though he has no direct connection with Alice, he is dependent upon Alec for his play, and Alec is not in London working. His play, called Oxygene in French, provides a dominating image for the novel.
As the action rotates among these characters, they begin, individually, to look for ways to atone for their past failures. They all ache to be connected to a positive force which will give meaning to their lives (and, perhaps, end their nagging guilt about their failures), just as Alice improves when she is connected to oxygen. Laszlo's chance to atone for the past is particularly dramatic, and Alec's is life-changing.
Despite its complex, seemingly depressing subject, the novel is actually thrilling to read, in part because of Andrew Miller's skill as a novelist. One of the clearest, cleanest writers in the world today, Miller chooses exactly the right word to meld perfect images with universal themes in new ways. His characters feel real, and their behavior and internal crises feel "normal." Perhaps it is this reason that the book speeds along, despite its heavy subject matter. Every detail is necessary to the overall story, and every detail works. An elegant novel told simply. Mary Whipple