Mike Mills’ 2011 film Beginners takes an event from his own life and turns it into the central plot point in a romantic drama about love, death, and depression. But it’s a much better and sweeter movie than that makes it sound.

As the film opens, we see the 38-year-old Oliver cleaning out a house, going through mementos and old papers, after which he explains (as narrator) that his father, Hal, has just died of cancer, four years after his mother died, which led Hal to reveal that he was gay and to embark on almost a second adolescence, finding new friends, a new love, and a happiness he’d never had during his four decades of marriage. That story, shown in retrospect, is cut in between shots of emotionally-stunted Oliver struggling to forge a new, and for him unusually happy, relationship with, Anna, a beautiful French actress who stumbles improbably into his life but is far from emotionally perfect herself. Oliver’s inability to be happy in love is only partially explained by what we learn about his family, but it’s too facile to say that he learns how to overcome that by watching his father – he learns how to start overcoming it, and to Mills’ credit, the film doesn’t make anything too easy on him or on us.

Nearly all of the dialogue – I’d be hard-pressed to call it action – in Beginners comes from the three central characters, with a few added lines from Hal’s younger boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic) and from the dog Arthur (via subtitles, if you were confused). Christopher Plummer is earning some justified Oscar buzz for his performance as the moribund Hal, whose mood is anything but as he finds himself liberated after 40-plus closeted years in an unfulfilled marriage that was, for him, more of a business arrangement; while I’d love to see him win Best Supporting Actor for sentimental reasons, it may also be that he wins for sentimental reasons, as he turns 82 in two weeks and has received just one nomination, in 2009 for The Last Station. It could be the Academy’s last chance to so honor Captain Von Trapp in a sort of lifetime achievement award.

But Plummer is truly the supporting actor to the two leads, Ewan Macgregor as Oliver and Mélanie Laurent as Anna, whose relationship we watch in tiny movements from inception to breakup (if you can call it that) to resolution, a path that seems painfully real in how precise some of those movements are. They meet at a costume party – one of those costume parties you only see on TV or in films, because all of the costumes are impeccable – where Anna has laryngitis and communicates via a tiny notepad, which still makes her louder than the grieving Oliver, just two months past the death of his father. From there, the film jumps around in time between their romance, often sweet but tinged with melancholy reflected in dim apartments and fall weather, and Hal’s last few years of personal freedom, exploring (his word) another side of himself while Oliver attempts to hold together a foundational element of his past. Discovering that his parents’ marriage was a sham – to him, fully, but to his father, only partly so – only cements his belief that relationships won’t work out, so why give them a chance to do so when you know you’ll fail?

We also see scenes from Hal’s marriage to Oliver’s mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller) in flashbacks in which Hal never appears: It’s always Oliver and his mother, and it becomes clear that while Hal viewed their marriage as an arrangement, she didn’t, and her growing alienation from her husband only compounded whatever issues she brought into the marriage in the first place. (This receives some explanation toward the end of the film, a mild spoiler I won’t reveal.) Witnessing his own parents’ loveless marriage, understanding that it was loveless with no understanding of why, warps Oliver’s own view of love and plants the seeds of an inability to build a lasting relationships that, with Anna, is exacerbated by his suffocating grief.

Laurent, meanwhile, could say virtually nothing and steal scenes just by virtue of being adorable, but Anna is battling a depression of her own, living an itinerant and ultimately lonesome lifestyle that may also reflect a reaction to a broken relationship between her still-living parents. It’s a hard trick to look sad without becoming pathetic when an actress and her character are both cute; while it took some time for Laurent to make Anna’s underlying sadness come through (the film is, after all, more focused on Oliver’s grief), the script turns enough to allow Laurent to stretch out beyond the façade of Anna’s playfulness. Her reunion with Oliver at the film’s end would have felt forced if he was the only one struggling emotionally, one of several small twists in the film that made it more effective and less sentimental than a standard girl-fixes-guy romantic drama.

Mills’ script succeeds when it’s subtle but veers off course when he veers outside the relationships at the film’s core. The conversations between Oliver and Anna are soft, short, understated – sometimes too much so, as in the breakup conversation that neither my wife nor I fully understood – contributing to a tentative feeling that conveys Oliver’s own uncertainty at entering a relationship that might not fail (and perhaps Anna’s uncertainty over the same). What I could have done without was Oliver’s inexplicable job – he’s some sort of artist or sketcher who ignores a rock band client’s request for an album cover, instead producing a series of badly-drawn sketches about the history of sadness that is far more about him (and emphasizing just how sad he is) than about the client, whose needs we never actually hear about anyway. Mills wants us to know just how Sad everyone is, but the dialogue and the tiny interactions between Oliver and Anna already provide that, leaving his sketches (e.g., “First couple too in love to be sad”) feeling extraneous. It was a heavy-handed flourish in a film that didn’t need it; Beginners wins you over with the delicate scenes between Oliver and Anna the contrast with the unfettered last few years for Hal.

* I don’t understand how this moved ended up with a rating of “R.” There’s no violence at all, and very little foul language. There’s no on-screen sex or even nudity – just a few shots of Melanie Laurent’s bare back, and if that merits an “R” rating, I must be one of the New Libertines or something. It seems to me that the ratings board members must have been watching the movie and saying, “Wow, what a nice film, we should make it PG or PG-13 since it’s so inoffe…oh my God there are two men kissing! Rate it R! RATE! IT! R!

* Ewan Macgregor was just as charming as a shy phone-company tech in Little Voice, a 1998 vehicle for singer Jane Horrocks, who plays a painfully shy woman with a hidden talent for impersonating great singers. (Those of you with young daughters know her as the voice of Fairy Mary in the Tinker Bell movies. Yes, you do, stop lying.) Horrocks owns the movie when she sings, but it’s a virtuoso performance from Michael Caine, who won a Golden Globe for the film, as the unscrupulous talent agent who sees one last chance to make a killing.

Legend of a Suicide.

David Vann’s story collection Legend of a Suicide has won a slew of literary awards and plaudits, including the Grace Paley Prize and appearances on 25 “best books of the year” lists, as well as becoming a critical and commercial success in, of all places, France. It’s a highly autobiographical book built around the suicide of Vann’s father when the author was just 13.

Legend is built around a central, two-part novella, “Sukkwan Island,” with three very short stories before it and two after; those five stories tie together closely, but the novella shifts two major plot details in a way that prevents reading the set as a single, linear story that would probably qualify as a novel. The five stories are well-written and useful for setting the scene, but I found the shift in “Sukkwan Island” jarring not just for its shock value but because the three stories that preceded that one had set me up for a different path.

In the early short stories, Vann’s alter ego, Roy, watches his father’s demise into depression and bad life choices from something of a distance, but in the alternate reality of “Sukkwan Island,” Roy chooses to spend a year in Alaska with his father, living survivalist-style in the woods on a remote island, only to witness Jim’s downward spiral up close. (In real life, and in the two stories that end the book, Roy/David declined to go to Alaska, after which Jim killed himself.) Roy dies in Alaska, and Jim’s depression and anxiety after his son’s death take on more corporeal form as he tries to survive, to cover up what happened, and to escape responsibility. Even Roy’s death could be a metaphor for the death of Vann’s relationship with his father – sensing that his father was headed for an inevitable tragedy and fearing the darkness and mood changes of crippling depression, perhaps David pulled away from his dad, convincing him to decline the invitation to spend a (miserable) year in the wildnerness with an unstable parent. Jim’s eventual death in “Sukkwan Island” is simultaneously a form of revenge on his father and a form of forgiveness, a glimmer of understanding that despite the inherent selfishness of suicide*, someone in the grip of that type of depression isn’t fully in control of his actions.

*Yes, I’ve lost a close relative to suicide, as has my wife. I speak from some experience, although nothing comparable to Vann’s.

Jim’s descent, fueled by despair, grief, fear, and self-doubt, is gripping and difficult to read; by putting Jim in the position of a father whose son has died and who bears at least some responsibility, Vann gives the reader more reason to empathize with the character, perhaps even to pity him, and thus makes his late father more than just a personal mess who screwed up his life and then screwed up his son’s by killing himself.

In the concluding stories, Roy – very much alive – goes to Alaska and attempts to piece together a little of his father’s legacy, only to find that the world there has changed so much during his own emotional stasis:

Memories are infinitely richer than their origins, I discovered; to travel back can only estrange one even from memory itself. And because memory is often all that a life or a self is built on, returning home can take away exactly that.

He remains emotionally paralyzed by his father’s suicide, and while that’s probably realistic, it doesn’t make for much of a story. I was looking for some kind of conclusion – not a happy ending, not even closure necessarily, but some sort of event to guide me out of the book. Roy goes to visit one of his father’s mistresses, only to find himself unable to ask her anything about his dad, a perfect vignette in a larger book but very unsatisfying as the basis for a short story.

Vann’s prose is easy and earnest, so much so that it’s uncomfortable at times to see through a window that clear, but a book about depression and suicide can’t be anything but brutally honest – if a novel or story on the subject doesn’t make the reader at least a little uncomfortable, it failed in its mission. If anything, Vann could have delved more deeply and continued any of the stories, or expanded “Sukkwan Island” into a longer novel, and found more material to mine in the complex, broken personality of his father and his own complex, even warped relationship with him, and the material would have remained compelling because he writes so well about these stark emotions. The first half of “Sukkwan” is the strongest material in Legend because that honesty is blended with the child’s view of his father breaking down, a mixture of confusion, fear, and stop-and-go sympathy from a boy in a position that would be difficult for an adult to handle. The second half of the story does suffer slightly from Roy’s absence.

If you don’t mind a bleak read, one where endings are few and never happy, but one that’s unsparing in its look at a fairly common mental illness that went untreated and ended in tragedy, Legend of a Suicide does an outstanding job of handling the subject. It’s uneven but introduces a talented writer who’s able to write about tough emotions, and I’m hopeful that in his upcoming novel, Caribou Island (due out in January), he’ll make the adjustments to tell a more complete story without compromising his emotional honesty.

Next up: Mary Murphy’s Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird. I received complimentary review copies of both that book and Legend from the publisher.

The Patron Saint of Liars & The Whore’s Child.

Ann Patchett’s debut novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, showcases the kind of insightful, compassionate writing that helped make her magnum opus, Bel Canto, such a critical and commercial success, although Liars lacks the same degree of storycraft found in Bel Canto or in The Magician’s Assistant. It is, however, one of the best sad books I have ever read, as the story of a woman who is hopelessly broken inside and yet can’t help but damage the people close to her through her inability to deal with her own fears and insecurities.

The primary liar in the book is Rose, who flees a comfortable marriage in California when she discovers she’s pregnant and “realizes” – or decides? – that she isn’t actually in love with her husband. She ends up at a Catholic home for pregnant girls who want to have their babies and give them up for adoption, but Rose ends up staying on well past her ninth month – and keeps her daughter as well, only to find herself unable to be a mother to her child or even much of a wife to her second husband. Patchett gives us a window into Rose’s sadness but never much of an explanation for it beyond the death of her father in a car accident when Rose was three. Her own daughter, Cecilia, reaches her early teens before her mother leaves the picture, but Rose is unable to mother her and Cecilia ends up forming bonds both with the nuns who run the facility and the girls who come in for six or seven or eight months and then mostly disappear from her life.

The book comprises three sections, and though Rose is the central character in the book, she only narrates the first third, and her motives for lying and leaving were never fully clear to me. Son, the groundskeeper she meets and marries at St. Elizabeth’s, narrates the second part, and Cecilia handles the third, and both were more compelling, deeply drawn characters with the ability to process and communicate their own complex emotions in ways that Rose’s character cannot. And Sister Evangeline, a sort of grandmother-figure/mystic in the group of otherwise grey, dour nuns is a scene-stealer whenever she appears.

The Patron Saint of Liars is a sad book, but not a bleak one. Rose is clearly depressed and her lack of progress or recognition is heartbreaking, especially as it threatens the lives of those closest to her. But there are streaks of hope not for Rose but for Son and especially Cecilia, who wants her mother to be a mother but has also has the strength to find that nurturing from others and is, at the book’s end, developing into a healthier, fuller person than her mother ever was. It is imperfect, from Rose’s scant motives to her ambiguous fate in what becomes Son’s and Cecilia’s story, but Patchett writes about emotions so clearly and empathetically that I moved through the book’s pages as I might through a novel of action.

Richard Russo’s first short story collection, The Whore’s Child and Other Stories, feels almost like a collection of rarities and B-sides, with a few outstanding entries that, in total, wouldn’t be enough for a full volume, so the publisher stuck in a first draft and a few throwaways to provide some bulk, although the hardcover edition still barely reaches 200 pages even with generous line spacing. The highlights are vintage Russo, though, and it’s worth going through the collection to find those stories and moments.

The main thrust of these stories seems to be failure, especially confronting failure of the past with the uncertainty of the future among his mostly middle-aged protagonists, many of whom are professors, writers, or other sorts of artists. The title story is told by a creative writing professor who has an unusual student auditing his class, one who becomes the star of the show for her brutally honest writing that turns out to be an exploration of her own sad childhood. Several stories revolve around failed marriages – I found “Monhegan Light,” in which a successful cinematographer chooses to meet the man who cuckolded him, only to find himself the loser in the confrontation, very disturbing – and “The Farther You Go” is the ancestor of his novel Straight Man, condensing the story of the narrator’s daughter throwing her husband out of the house.

My main problem with the novel is that the inherently brief nature of the short story limits Russo’s ability to introduce the local color of side characters and the comic relief of subplots and running gags. Instead, we’re left with a sort of stark, gloomy fatalism about lives lived wrong without hope of a turnaround or just a temporary uptick. Only the final story, “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart,” brought that mix of humor and sadness in a sort of of coming-of-age story with a number of baseball-related scenes, but the attempts to decipher a complicated adult relationship through the eyes of the ten-year-old title character felt blurry.

I’ve enjoyed the five Russo novels I’ve read, especially Empire Falls and The Risk Pool, but I’d recommend The Whore’s Child for completists (like me) only, as the title story alone isn’t enough to justify buying the whole book.

I received a review copy of a new short story collection by Justin Taylor called Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, but the collection doesn’t live up to the title. I found the stories crude and immature, with the young writer’s obsession with sex (and with using sex as the primarily vehicle for meaning in the lives of his characters) and an evident lack of life experience. The characters were uninteresting, sometimes two-dimensional and largely self-absorbed, and their actions struck me as forced.


I was reading Joe Posnanski’s post on the Harlem Globetrotters and the brilliant, witty quote from the man who runs the Globetrotters’ patsy opponents, who are apparently going around again under the Washington Generals banner. That reminded me, as every mention or sighting of the Globetrotters does, of the one time I saw them perform live, a day that – for no reason related to the Globetrotters or anything that happened on the court – brings back to me a tremendous feeling of sadness.

It was a small thing, really, over in a few seconds. I was with my parents and younger sister – this was between 20 and 25 years ago – and we happened to have seats on the floor, in the front row, on folding chairs. When we got there, one of the four seats was already occupied by a solitary man, probably in his 20s, a little shabbily dressed – I remember his clothes were largely gray, but not much more about them. My mother got the attention of an usher, who checked the man’s ticket and informed him that he was in the wrong section. He stood up and sort of shuffled off, with a slightly defeated look on his face – not a crushed or devastated expression, but one that seemed to say, “oh, again.” It occurred to me even at the time that he might have some sort of developmental disorder, but the expression and the way he wandered off – shoulders sagging, head down, with no hurry to get to his proper seat before the game started, perhaps with no idea where he was headed – made it seem to me that he was, more than anything else, alone. And I found that state – not just loneliness, but a pervasive, chronic loneliness, a state of being permanently, irreversibly alone – so saddening that it stayed with me through the game, the day, the ensuing days, and twenty-plus years after. I still return to that feeling of sadness for that man every time I see or hear about the Globetrotters, even though I enjoyed the show, and can still remember some of the gags. (Stopping the game when someone left her seat to head for the concourse so one of the players could walk over, wag his finger, and say “I know where you’re going” stands out the most. I’m sure they still use the same joke.) I remember the ride home, wondering about the man in grey, who took care of him – did he need taking care of – where were his parents, or whoever raised him – did he go home to an empty house – was he as sad as he looked. I know I didn’t want this sad, gray man who should have passed in and out of my life in a matter of seconds to be as sad as he looked, because it made me sad, and I couldn’t bear the thought of someone feeling like that all day, every day, for the rest of his life.

There’s one other alone person who has haunted me for nearly that long. My wife and I were shopping at the Worcester outlet mall, which means it was either 1995 or 1996. That place was always depressing, even though the building itself seemed relatively new and in good repair; the lighting was dim, and it was never busy when we were there, even on weekends. It wasn’t easy to get to or find, and once you reached it there was less there than you expected, which sort of describes the city of Worcester as well. And the food court area was particularly poorly lit; I remember being there just after lunch on this one day and finding the whole place in shadow, with just hints of sunlight taunting shoppers – “I’m out today, people, but there is no way on earth I’m coming into that place.”

As we were leaving the food court, my wife spotted an older woman, 80 if she was a day, sitting by herself at a table, sipping one of those tiny cartons of milk from a straw. And my wife asked me if I thought the woman was drinking milk because it was all she could afford. I said no, although I wondered then and still wonder now if that was my instinctive ability to come up with a positive explanation for a probably unpleasant situation, and perhaps we should have done as my wife suggested and offered to buy the woman a meal. At the time, what overwhelmed me, even as I was trying to believe that I wasn’t witnessing the sad poverty of old age, was that the woman looked inescapably alone, and that she herself was drowning in the sadness of solitude. I can still picture her face – not ragged or dirty, but worn, used, with an expression that said she was finished, that she’d had more sadness, more loneliness than one person could possibly absorb.

In the intervening years I’ve certainly seen more alone people, but none have affected me quite like these two did. Maybe I don’t notice them because on some subconscious level I’m trying not to notice them, because I know it can upset me for days. I do tend to walk around with some sort of distraction handy, usually a book but often my Blackberry, so maybe I’m spending less time surveying the surroundings. And maybe it’s because I talk to people when I’m out and about by myself, because while I don’t mind a quiet afternoon with a book or some music, I don’t really like to be alone too much either.