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The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt

Minnesota Malaise Meets New York Neurosis

The ellipsis, in grammatical terms, is what English teachers would call an “unsaid thought.” For therapists, the ellipsis is their bread and butter. Once the patient fills in the ellipsis, the job is theoretically done. The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt creates a panorama of characters that suffer from ellipsis override.

The fulcrum of activity is Erik Davidsen, a New York psychiatrist who travels to Minnesota to take care of his father’s belongings after his death. Once on site, Erik discovers a letter written during the Depression by a woman named Lisa in which Erik’s father is asked not to reveal a secret. The letter reads: “It can’t matter now she’s in heaven or to the ones here on earth. I believe in your promise, Lisa.”

Upon initial investigation, Erik realizes that no one knows who Lisa is and he returns to New York with the entire bulk of letters. This is the ellipsis from his father’s past. While he promises to investigate as best he can from afar, Erik realizes that as he is reading the letters, he is learning about a man he didn’t really know, the life of most men before they become fathers. Erik, a recent divorcé, who never had children of his own, is suffering from self-diagnosed “anhedonia” or joylessness. Through the course of reading his father’s letters, he begins having dreams, including one where he is walking in the snow and his father does not see him at all.

But Erik has little time to dwell on the mysteries of his own upbringing because the drama of others begins to impinge on his life. A reporter harasses his sister Inga, indicating that her now dead novelist husband also had a secret life. Her daughter Sonia is still recovering not only from the death of her father, but the aftermath of 9-11.

Erik is also involved in a mystery in the present. After his divorce, Erik rented the bottom floor of his Brooklyn brownstone to a book designer, Miranda, and her daughter Eglantine. Eglantine befriends Erik and brings him drawings, which indicate a mystery surrounding her own father. Erik tries to play professional while suffusing his own desire for Miranda. In turn, Erik realizes that Miranda is being stalked by a mysterious photographer who crosses the line when he begins taking photographs of Erik. When Erik confronts Miranda about her relationship with the aberrant stalker, Miranda dodges the issue and confronts him: “Isn’t there always something people don’t say? You’re a psychiatrist. Isn’t that your job? Figuring out what people aren’t saying?”

People familiar with Hustvedt’s work will recognize the usual tools in her kit, plays with memory, plays with gender, and the messy line between what constitutes “art” and “life". The late Susan Sontag made the case that when photographers take a photo of someone, they are in a sense stealing something from them, a moment, a bit of soul. Where Erik sees violence and theft, Miranda sees art. But of course, what is really at hand is the ellipsis from her life.

While the ellipses in the book do get filled, the process is more abrupt than in Hustvedt’s other books. At times, it feels like a parent reading faster through the story to make sure you get to the end before you fall asleep.

The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt
Henry Holt
Published April 1, 2008
Hardcover, $25
ISBN: 978-0-8050-7908-1
320 pages