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The minute I finish a really amazing novel, I am usually at a loss for words. It’s kind of ironic that my first reaction to the powerful and artful use of language is silence. Maybe that’s the appropriate response to art. Still, I will try to cobble some words together, so that I might share with others how much I loved Adam Haslet’s novel Union Atlantic . Readers’ Advisory Librarian Joyce Saricks encourages librarians to write down three words that describe every book they read. These words usually reflect an emotional response to a book and can convey what a mere plot summary cannot—the subjective, sometimes murky, seemingly unconscious reasons why people love or loathe a book. My three words for Union Atlantic : ambitious, demanding, and nostalgic.
I picked up this title, because it was constantly being referenced in reviews of other books I’d read and enjoyed. The setting is post 9/11, pre-Iraq war, and Union Atlantic is morphing from a strong, reputable, regional bank to a multinational financial services conglomerate. 37-year-old Doug Fanning is at the center of this transformation, moving funds with a singular, lethal determination that seems as much poetry as business. Fanning has recently built a multi-million dollar McMansion on land adjacent to the home of Charlotte Graves. Graves, who calls the place a “steroidal offense,” sues Fanning, claiming he has built the house on land gifted to the town by her grandfather. Connecting these two characters is a vulnerable, grieving high school student, Nate. After a tutoring session with Graves, Nate snoops around Fanning’s home. Assuming it to be empty, he enters and is pulled into Fanning’s relentless quest for control and power. Did I mention that Charlotte’s brother, Henry, also happens to be President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York?
Charlotte Graves may be one of the most beautifully written characters I’ve ever read. A history teacher pushed out of her job for her liberal moralizing, she is a modern Cassandra. She may also be a wee bit insane. She begins believing that her dogs are speaking to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X—a development that is both absurd and strangely plausible to the reader. Her soliloquies resound with a spiritual fervor, and it’s very hard not to become entranced by their beautiful, passionate language. She serves as Doug Fanning’s antithesis. Where he is weightless and unattached with barely more than a widescreen television and a six-pack of beer in his sprawling mansion, Charlotte is anchored by her past, her possession, and her beliefs. In Haslet’s capable hands, neither situation is tenable for long.
Haslet’s ability to extrapolate from complex, global and historical events their private and personal fallout makes Union Atlantic a remarkable novel. I described this book as nostalgic, but it is a nostalgia that is keenly aware of the inability to go back. The world will only move forward. Even Charlotte recognizes this: “he [Douglas Fanning] is the future. One way or the other. His kind of rapaciousness, it doesn’t end. It just bides its time” (224).