This is as fine a contemporary tale of blind devotion and betrayal as you'll find at bookstores or in your local library (that's where I found it, anyway).
Claire Marvel is a great read with a capital "G." Just writing about it makes me want to read it again, but I can't, at least not right now, because I have to reread another book in preparation for my next review. I will however, read a brief passage in an audioclip on this blog, so you can hear John Burnham Schwartz's prose. It will make you want to surf on over to BarnesandNoble.com. (I only plug Barnes & Noble because they allow our writing group to meet there twice a month for free.)
I remember feeling breathless at times, reading this novel. The main character, Julian, is passionate and intelligent and sensitive and a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, and do men really get much better than that on paper?
Schwartz's writing liberally and lyrically surges and retrenches with Julian's moods, allowing us to see and feel what he does. I had a couple quick intakes of breath after reading certain passages. It had been months since I'd read anything that well written, and his craft startled me at times, much like having the wind knocked out of my lungs.
In the opening scene Julian is on campus, headed to see a professor, when a cloudburst traps him in front of a museum, where he shares an umbrella the color of buttercups with a beautiful, enigmatic woman named Claire Marvel. How's that for a character name?
Immediately I thought of the old Hollies song, "Bus Stop," wondering whether Schwartz heard it as a kid, too, stuffed it into his gray matter, then retrieved it for this book:
Bus stop, wet day, she's there, I say
Please share my umbrella
Bus stop, bus goes, she stays, love grows
Under my umbrella
All that summer we enjoyed it
Wind and rain and shine
That umbrella, we employed it
By August, she was mine
Claire is lovely and mysterious, the kind of woman all women wish we were--but aren't. At the book's opening, it's pouring rain--a torrent--but she's still stunning, alluring, only slightly soggy, and sexy as hell. Though he's soaked to the skin, the reader feels Julian's naked want, seething, turning to steam under his drenched clothing.
I wanted to intensely dislike her right away.
However, the author is just too clever by half. He allows us in Julian's head with dispatch, so we begin to feel for her what he feels within the first five pages.
Claire is one of those women few men can figure out, and some die trying. Unpredictable, temporal, and ethereally beautiful, Claire is like a watercolor in a rainstorm. She is the watercolor in the rainstorm in Cambridge when she and Julian meet.
She's that stunning painting of a person one never forgets and to whom every other person will be compared thereafter because they were the first. The first truly beautiful consuming thing we experience when our neural paths are barely trafficked and so remain with us always.
Though how one makes it as far as a doctoral program at Harvard without being deeply affected by beauty, I'll never know.
That's part of why we like Julian. He is gentle and reaches out to people around him--and not just beautiful women. He has a tender friendship with quirky old lady on his block, to name one, but there are others.
Maybe I appreciated the book so much--I read it a weekend--because I can relate to Julian. Not because I have summered in Europe--I haven't. What Julian wants most will never be within his reach. Some of the emotional contortions I underwent while reading Claire Marvel arose from Julian's failure to obtain what I felt he deserved. And I'm not talking about wealth or fame. Just happiness, contentness. Simply being adored by the object of one's adoration.
I don't want to spoil the plot for you because it is rich and surprising, the kind of story in which dramatic irony is meted out with such cruelty, you not only know there's a sovereign power, but one who likes to move us around like chess pieces for sport.
If you want to see how soft and absorbent Puffs Plus really are, then read Claire Marvel. It's good for you...if cleaning out your tear ducts is a healthy thing. Just make sure you have your opiate of choice on hand--chocolate, gummi bears, Little Debbie's creme filled oatmeal cakes.
A handsome husband works well, too.