Saturday, February 2, 2008

Marvel-Less Claire

I recently finished John Burnham Schwartz's 2002 novel, "Claire Marvel." It's not an especially memorable book, which is unfortunate. It's a tale of young lovers in college. One day Julian Rose meets the improbably named Claire Marvel. Sparks fly, things happen, etc, etc. Julian is a graduate student in political science under the tutalage of Professor Carl Davis, a renowned conservative scholar and mover and shaker. (He actually knows Henry Kissinger!) Julian and Claire have a relationship, but eventually she leaves Julian for Davis. Julian moves back to New York City, forgets about Claire, and the novel would seem to be at an ending point. Wrong! While Claire is married to Davis she and Julian reconnect and continue their affair. This seemed like too much of a stretch to me, a very unnatural plot device.

It's as if Schwartz got to a certain point in the narrative and said, "Okay, I have to keep throwing them together to keep people's interest, how do I do it?" The answer is, he should have written a shorter book. "Claire Marvel" drags on too long, and covers much too long a timeframe, about ten years or more. It needed to be shorter, and the timeframe needed to be more compressed, to make it have more of an emotional impact. And it's also just odd to have Julian still obsessing about Claire even years after he meets and marries Laura.

Although "Claire Marvel" is Schwartz's third novel, it feels and reads much more like a first novel. The gossamer-thin plot, the love story, the college setting at the beginning, it all feels like a roman-a-clef first work by a young writer. But what ultimately makes the book fail is that the characters never ring true. We are unable to see what Julian sees in Claire. Why is she so marvelous? I haven't the foggiest notion. She does not come off as interesting or unique. Schwartz never describes Claire in enough detail for her to seem real to us, and she's still an enigma at the end of the book. A title character can't be that empty.

Schwartz is a good writer, his novel "Reservation Road" is much acclaimed, though I haven't read it, and was just made into a movie released last fall. It was supposed to be what they used to call a "prestige picture," (the kind of "serious" movie that garners awards for those involved) with Mark Ruffalo, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jennifer Connelly, but it sank without a trace. In fact, according to, it grossed just $36,000 in the US, and it looks like it was only in theaters for one weekend. I think someone lost some money on that one! Anyway, I hope anything I read by Schwartz in the future is better than "Claire Marvel."

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