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A Stone Boat

Love and death make dramatic entrances in this elegiac first novel by nonfiction writer Solomon (The Ivory Tower: Soviet Artists in a Time of Glasnost, 1991) about a young concert pianist who plays for time while his mother is dying of cancer. First-person narrator Harry is under 30, gay, and always striving for perfection in his music, his sexual partners, and his aesthetic rhetoric, with which he tries heroically (and sometimes pretentiously) to wring beauty from the ordinary while visiting stylish locations in London, Paris, and Manhattan. He observes the textures of flowers, different foods, the surfaces of bodies. Harry also picks a fight with his bland lover Bernard and has three intense affairs, one with a longtime female friend, to escape his depression over his mother’s terminal illness. Early in the novel, she blames her suffering on his homosexuality and tries to manipulate him into a more conventional life style: “I know you think you’re being honest or true to yourself or something, but what you have with Bernard can’t be greater than that combination of love and children that you could have with Helen or someone.” The mother, still in her 50s, does not want to die early, but she also doesn’t want her last days to be horrific. When chemotherapy does not appear to have halted the cancer, she plans her date with death as carefully as if it were a wedding, attending a party the week before in a grand show of matriarchal dignity as she climbs a staircase unassisted. “One step at a time, regal as the Queen of Sheba, my mother climbed that staircase. The long rope of pearls swung slightly as she walked, as though it were telling time,” writes Solomon in one particularly poignant passage. An elegant and moving examination of a difficult subject.