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A Review of The Physics of Sunset by Jane Vandenburgh, Pantheon. 291 pp. $24.
Think of the best contemporary American writers who are women. My list would begin with Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Hamilton, Anne Lamott, and several themes come to mind. The importance of children. The importance of place. But erotic sex? Hardly.
Jane Vandenburgh's second novel is a deep and unsettling contemplation of marriage, an affectionate satire of Berkeley, California, a good story enhanced by wit, architecture, art, physics and geology. It is also a very sexy book. And some of the sexual tension, like it or not, comes from the fact that the two main characters are a Christian and a Jew.
Anna, a self-effacing poet from a Yankee family, is a young mother in the process of extracting herself from an awful marriage. Alec, her neighbor, is a successful architect born in Queens, a good husband and father of two, who is determined to remain "a mensch" (good person) despite his powerful attraction to Anna. The plot turns on whether Alec and Anna will give in to the hedonism of Berkeley's elite and in the process destroy Alec's marriage.
Some of Vandenburgh's characters veer uncomfortably close to caricature. Anna's husband, a glib and blankly handsome womanizer from a wealthy family, is almost unimaginably awful. Instead, she is drawn to Alec as the intense outsider, and ironically, as a faithful husband, albeit to someone else. As a poet, an observer, and therefore an outsider herself, she empathizes with Alec's outsider status. And of course, they are both transplanted Easterners. Vandenburgh depicts how, as a young man, Alec had already left the Jewish world of Queens, and his parents, far behind, by moving West, marrying his non-Jewish wife Gina, and aspiring to secure a place among the WASP architects in academia. When his parents come to visit from Queens, they cannot comprehend his architecture, his lifestyle, what he is doing so far from home.
The moral upheavals in Vandenburgh's novel are paralleled by the natural upheavals of northern California: earthquake, brushfire, mudslide. The setting is as vivid as any character. Vandenburgh ties the novel together with chapter headings and quotations alluding to the laws of physics. There are quotations from Sir Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking, chapter titles such as "Absolute Zero," "Irrational Numbers" and "Celestial Bodies." In this novel, forces beyond our control exert constant pressure.
Vandenburgh's poetic writing and use of allusion lend her novel plenty of literary weight by the time the characters first release their erotic tension, two-thirds of the way through the novel. After such a careful build-up, there is absolutely nothing gratuitous about these scenes, but the final third of the story explodes with very compelling, very explicit, and very torrid sex. The Physics of Sunset makes one realize how rare it is for a literary writer, woman or man, to unleash their full descriptive powers on this fundamental form of human interaction. Vandenburgh accomplishes the task with bravado, and then leads us to a bittersweet and satisfying conclusion.