As a reader, I am rather impatient – if a book doesn’t pull me in quickly, I am discouraged and apt to move on to another selection.
Tracy Guzeman’s new novel, “The Gravity of Birds” (Simon & Schuster, 2013), succeeds in capturing the reader quickly purely by the strength of its characters: Thomas Bayber, a young man in his 20s who is painting in a cabin in the woods, and Alice Kessler, a 14-year-old bird lover who visits the lake with her family.
The book is a treat – and surprisingly strong for a first novel.
After we meet Thomas and Alice in the summer of 1963, we embark on a roller-coaster ride to different points in their future. This is a popular technique in modern fiction, but Guzeman overuses the device, sometimes leaving the reader disoriented and confused. We see Thomas as a lonely old man, by then a world-famous painter, on a quest with his longtime friend, Dennis Finch, to find two missing panels from a triptych Thomas painted when he was young. Then we see Thomas as a man in his 30s engaging in an intimate relationship with Alice. Finally, we follow Finch and a colleague as they search the country for the lost panels.
With all the dizzying looks into past, present and future, Guzeman sets the stage for a series of mysteries that propel readers through the book. First, we are anxious to understand why the relationship between Thomas and Alice disintegrated. Second, we are puzzled by the relationship between Alice and her sister, Natalie – they are close as youngsters but distant later in their lives. And finally, the missing triptych panels make us question their content and wonder whether they will shed light on the first two mysteries.
The well-drawn characters fundamentally drive “The Gravity of Birds” – we grow to care about them over the 40-year trajectory of their story. We are never quite sure about Natalie, for example. She is beautiful but cold – always attractive to boys and men and well versed in manipulating the opposite sex, but seemingly not interested in any particular man. We don’t understand Natalie’s motivations and are left to wonder whether she is damaged by some childhood trauma or simply meant to be an enigma.
In the last half of the book, we settle into the present and learn more about the motivations of Dennis, an art history professor who has recently lost his wife, and Stephen Jameson, a young art authenticator who lacks any semblance of social skills. It is a joy to watch how these men complement each other and evolve as they take on Bayber’s challenge to find the missing panels.
Guzeman weaves bird metaphors throughout, prompting the reader to question which characters figuratively are caged and which are set free.
“The Gravity of Birds” reminded me of M.L. Stedman’s “The Light Between Oceans” (Scribner, 2012) in its themes, style and characters. Guzeman’s debut novel would make an excellent selection for fiction fans and book clubs.
Leslie Ashmore is a Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.