Her novels read like an escape—to a place where even personal turmoil and loneliness hold unwavering optimism and comfort. With The Whole World Over (Pantheon, 512 pages, $25.95), Julia Glass has written a second novel as accomplished as her first, the masterful Three Junes, winner of the 2002 National Book Award.
From Three Junes, Glass brings the character Fenno McLeod, a kind, gay Scottish-expatriate New Yorker. Though he remains a side character in The Whole World Over, McLeod is an old friend, a reassurance of Glass' continued vision and talent. In her novels, Glass first reveals the desires and flaws that shape her characters' lives, and then shows—through elegant, measured writing and minutely described emotions—how they lead to events that irrevocably tie the characters to each another. It is no surprise that Glass is an admirer of George Eliot.
The Whole World Over begins when Ray McCrae, the backwoods Republican governor of New Mexico, offers 36-year-old Greenie Duquette a job as house chef after tasting her "one hell-and-back of a coconut cake." Upsetting her New Yorker life (and stagnant marriage), Greenie accepts, taking her 4-year-old son, George, to Santa Fe.
Back in New York City, the novel also follows Greenie's husband, Alan, a psychotherapist facing his own midlife malaise; her witty friend Walter, a sentimental restaurateur looking for lasting love in the West Village's gay community; and Saga, a young woman recovering her independence after a life-altering accident.
Glass has not strayed far from Three Junes' locales and preoccupations: the West Village and its inhabitants, the pleasurable company of dogs, the joys of baking, of food and of family. These cozily domestic latter themes often detract from the story's strength. Despite all the characters' problems, little shakes the novel's sometimes cloying sense of self-satisfaction.
The novel's final progression, which leads directly to 9/11, should have changed that. A native New Yorker, Glass undoubtedly knew the depth and chaos of that tragedy firsthand, but she describes it quickly, too distantly to give her characters the opportunity to struggle with issues outside the domestic realm. This is particularly disappointing after Three Junes' nuanced treatment of AIDS and how it affected New York's gay community during the '80s and '90s. Regardless, Glass' ending has courage—poetic in both language and emotion. For her memorable characters, the beautiful Fenno included, that day marks the final bringing together of all their lives.
Julia Glass will read from
at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, July 10. Free.