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Originally published Friday, May 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Among the "Sorrows" and secrets, much insight but little heartfelt emotion

In "The Sorrows of an American," Hustvedt tells the story of a Norwegian-American family whose patriarch, Lars Davidsen, grew up in rough-and-tumble rural Minnesota during the Depression.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Siri Hustvedt

The author of "The Sorrows of an American" will read at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

"The Sorrows of an American" by Siri Hustvedt

Henry Holt, 306 pp., $25

Siri Hustvedt's fourth novel is part mystery, part psychological drama and part historical diary.

In "The Sorrows of an American," Hustvedt tells the story of a Norwegian-American family whose patriarch, Lars Davidsen, grew up in rough-and-tumble rural Minnesota during the Depression. We meet up with his story just after his death, when his two children, Inga and Erik, are cleaning out his home office. Among his old journals and letters they find a mysterious note from a woman named Lisa that seems to suggest their father had a double life.

And so the investigation begins. But, remember, our heroes are very well-educated second-generation Norwegians, so the plot is less a mafia-style thriller and more an academic analysis of archived papers.

The story is told from Erik's perspective. He is a psychoanalyst who hangs out with "... a contentious cabal of neuroscientists, analysts, psychiatrists, pharmacologists, neurologists and a couple of AI and robotics fellows thrown in as well." His sister, Inga, is a scholar of philosophy once married to an author whose life and death provide a mysterious subplot of their own. When Erik and Inga get together for a dinner party with their friends, the dialogue is almost comically erudite.

And on that note, if you're looking for emotive, vibrant vernacular, this isn't the book for you. Hustvedt writes very well, but her prose has all the flair of your Aunt Olga's dinner rolls. Sometimes Erik says things about the human condition that are wonderfully perceptive and incredibly poignant, but he seems to say them as if he's observing the human condition, rather than experiencing it himself. Here's what he says when he learns from a female friend that his father suffered immensely to protect him and his sister from a tough life: "As she looked at me, I felt an incalculable sadness for all of us. Although her expression remained the same, I saw that her eyes were wet. Then the tears ran down her cheeks in two thin streams."

In one of the truest, most bleak lines in the book, Erik says: "It's odd that we're all compelled to repeat pain, but I've come to regard this as a truth." It's as if Hustvedt is able to peer in on the most fragile, desperate parts of our souls, poke around at them — and then shrug and go make dinner.

Some of the liveliest parts of the book occur when Hustvedt is able to wriggle away from Erik's stoic perspective and inhabit the voice of Lars Davidsen in italicized excerpts from the journals he kept during the most nightmarish parts of the Depression and WWII. Erik's perpetually sweaty, well-intentioned friend Burton, and Inga's whip-smart daughter Sonia are also wonderful characters that vibrate with the idiosyncrasies and irrational emotions of real people.

Haley Edwards is a Seattle Times news reporter.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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