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Disobedience: A Novel [Paperback]

Jane Hamilton
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
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Book Description

July 10 2001
From Jane Hamilton, author of the beloved New York Times bestsellers A Map of the World and The Book of Ruth, comes a warmly humorous, poignant novel about a young man, his mother's e-mail, and the often surprising path of infidelity.

Henry Shaw, a high school senior, is about as comfortable with his family as any seventeen-year-old can be. His father, Kevin, teaches history with a decidedly socialist tinge at the Chicago private school Henry and his sister attend. His mother, Beth, who plays the piano in a group specializing in antique music, is a loving, attentive wife and parent. Henry even accepts the offbeat behavior of his thirteen-year-old sister, Elvira, who is obsessed with Civil War
reenactments and insists on dressing in handmade Union uniforms at inopportune times.

When he stumbles on his mother's e-mail account, however, Henry realizes that all is not as it seems. There, under the name Liza38, a name that Henry innocently established for her, is undeniable evidence that his mother is having an affair with one Richard Polloco, a violin maker and unlikely paramour who nonetheless has a very appealing way with words and a romantic spirit that, in Henry's estimation, his own father woefully lacks.

Against his better judgment, Henry charts the progress of his mother's infatuation, her feelings of euphoria, of guilt, and of profound, touching confusion. His knowledge of Beth's secret life colors his own tentative explorations of love and sex with the ephemeral Lily, and casts a new light on the arguments-usually focused on Elvira-in which his parents regularly indulge. Over the course of his final year of high school, Henry observes each member of the family, trying to anticipate when they will find out about the infidelity and what the knowledge will mean to each of them.

Henry's observations, set down ten years after that fateful year, are much more than the "old story" of adultery his mother deemed her affair to be. With her inimitable grace and compassion, Jane Hamilton has created a novel full of gentle humor and rich insights into the nature of love and the deep, mysterious bonds that hold families together.

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From Amazon

A wayward wife, an Oedipally obsessed e-mail snoop, a pint-sized Civil War reenactor (oops, make that living historian), and a cheerfully oblivious cuckold comprise the Shaws of Chicago, the decidedly quirky characters of Jane Hamilton's fourth novel, Disobedience. An unlikely family to fall prey to the vagaries of modern life, the Shaws are consumed with clog dancing, early music, and the War Between the States. But they do possess a computer, and when 17-year-old Henry stumbles into his mother's e-mail account and epistolary evidence of her affair with a Ukrainian violinist, he becomes consumed with this glimpse into her life as a woman, not simply a mother.
To picture my mother a lover, I had at first to break her in my mind's eye, hold her over my knee, like a stick, bust her in two. When that was done, when I had changed her like that, I could see her in a different way. I could put her through the motions like a jointed puppet, all dancy in the limbs, loose, nothing to hold her up but me.
While his mother (whom he refers to variously as Mrs. Shaw, Beth, and her e-mail sobriquet, Liza38), dallies with her pen pal, whom she calls "the companion of my body, the guest of my heart," Henry experiences his own sexual awakening; his 13-year-old sister, Elvira, retreats into gender-bending historical fantasy; and their father remains determinedly absorbed in pedagogical responsibilities.

Ironically (and not completely convincingly) narrated by an adult Henry, Disobedience has a rollicking tone somewhat at odds with the somber prospects that loom for this family. A very worldly teenager in some ways, despite the hippie wholesomeness of his family, Henry tells his tale in abundant, almost flowery prose, imagining his mother's private life with elegiac fervor. As in her earlier A Map of the World, Jane Hamilton writes with affection and insight about the darker side of apparently ordinary Midwestern folks. --Victoria Jenkins --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Credit Hamilton with courage, virtuosity and a remarkable ability to reflect inner lives. Her first novel, The Book of Ruth, was the unsparing story of a girl trapped in woeful circumstances; the protagonist of her second, The Map of the World, was a woman responsible for a child's death; the narrator of The Short History of a Prince was a gay man. Here she again explores family bonds and tensions, the demands of sexuality and the ethics of betrayal (not an oxymoron)Dthis time from the point of view of a teenager who discovers that his mother is having an affair. Henry Shaw is a high school senior when he intercepts e-mail messages between his mother, Beth, a musician and specialist in ancient music, and violin maker Richard Pollico. As he secretly eavesdrops on the liaison between "Liza38" and "Rpol," Henry's emotions, ranging from horror to fear of abandonment to rage to deep sadness, take on a new dimension when he himself falls in love with a girl he meets in summer camp. Meanwhile, his generally bemused and patient father, Kevin, a high school history teacher, seems unaware of Beth's infidelity, since he spends much of his time coaching Henry's rebellious sister, Elvira, 13, who is obsessed with her desire to join a Civil War reenactment disguised as a boy. A mirror image of A Short History's protagonist, Walter, at the same age, Elvira displays an unhappiness with her gender that causes stress in the Shaw's marriage. As she has amply demonstrated before, Hamilton knows the nuances of domestic relationships and the landscape of teenage uncertainty. Henry's voice is exactly right: he's a thoughtful, intelligent boy whose hormones are sending him confusing messages, and whose tendency is to mock both parents with typical teen sardonic humor. Henry's funny quips are actually quite sad, because they mask his sorrow at the severing of his close bond with his mother, and his discomfort at secretly being aware of her illicit passion. Beth's joyous reaction to physical love and her anguish at how her behavior, if revealed, might affect her family, are likewise rendered with compassion. In a miracle of empathy, Hamilton manages to grant psychological validity to all the members of this ordinary-seeming but emotionally distracted family, and to strike the reader's heart with her tender evocation of both human fallibility and our ability to recover from heartbreaking choices. Author tour. (Oct.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Boring July 8 2004
It took me a while to finish this book. Every time Hamilton started to get to the actual story, she'd stop and explain through Henry how every character felt about every little thing that was happening. It bogged down the story for me and eventually got on my nerves. There were so many points where I was tempted to just give up. The story is complex and multi-layered, but incredibly slow-paced. I am glad that I reached the end; the story gets interesting at the end. Overall, though, it's a very boring read, and I don't feel the ending, as good as it is, makes it up for the time I spent dragging myself through the rest of it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Multi-layered July 7 2004
I enjoyed this book tremendously. I liked hearing the story from the son's point of view. I loved the character development. Everyone had a clear story and objective. The story has so many layers that all inter-twine, just like the lives we live. This is the best Jane Hamilton book I've read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A filial maternal biography? June 15 2004
Well maybe not. I think if you are reading this, you understand the premise; a boy finds out about his mother's affair. But it is also about the mother, his family and his growing up. It is detailed, well written, and not sophmoric. The book is written in retrospect, so there is ample reflection and it is not a Salinger or Portnoy's complaint from a young or impudent voice. I was very happy with this book and recommend it highly. I also will predict that this author's other works must be equally well written.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful writing, but...... Feb. 21 2004
There is no question that Jane Hamilton is one very talented author. The woman is literate, funny and tells one hell of a story. "Disobedience" is no exception to this. Filled with the quirky, amusing antics of the Shaw family, Hamilton creates characters you want to know. When mother Beth Shaw's extra-marital affair is discovered by her email snooping son, the Shaw's lives become an open book. Herein lies my problem with the novel; the voice of our narrator Henry, the son in question.
Henry is a seventeen year old boy, albeit a witty, intellectual one, but a teenage boy none the less. While Henry's dry observations had me laughing out loud on many occasions, a voice inside my head kept saying one thing over and over. "This is great writing, and I'm enjoying this story, but this is not how a seventeen year old boy talks or thinks, this is the voice of a middle aged woman" In her quest to be literary, the author has made Henry's narration far too mature and urbane to be believable. Even the most sophisticated seventeen year old would not have the life experience necessary to form the types of opinions on sexuality, infidelity and marraige that Henry is apparently capable of. While the novel is enjoyable and worth reading, Henry's voice never quite rings true.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The power of family stories Jan. 6 2003
I love the way Jane Hamilton uses words. Her sentences soar yet the language is down to earth.
Henry's description of his mother's infidelity tells the story of all families and their struggles. How family members can love and hate each other. How they wonder how they could even be related but will defend each other against all foes. I loved the different ways Beth Shaw could be and express herself depending on who she was with. Jane Hamilton lets us in on the secret that our lives all have many pages waiting to be discovered.
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4.0 out of 5 stars falling off the pedestal Nov. 3 2002
By Amy
When I first started teaching, I remember wondering to myself how in the world I was ever going to be a teacher . . . after all, teachers were perfect people! Growing up I always thought that my teachers walked on water. How could I aspire to be one of them? Of course it didn't take long to find out that teachers actually weren't perfect. That upset me at first. I guess that's what happens when someone falls off the pedestal.
This is what happens to Henry in the novel Disobedience. At the age of 17- half boy, half man- Henry realizes that his mother is more than a mother- she is a woman and she is not perfect. This realization upsets, yet intrigues him. The remainder of the novel is a series of his reflections about human nature, families, and the complications of our lives.
I thought Jane Hamilton did an excellent job of examining family dynamics in Disobedience. Her story brings to light what we all know but often fail to acknowledge- that you never really know what goes on in peoples' private lives (unless you know their email password). Seemingly happy marriages- and families- are often not what they appear to be. Often people are disobedient. This may be an "old story with nothing new in it," but it is intriguing nevertheless.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Slightly Let Down Oct. 24 2002
I have to temper my comments on "Disobedience" by stating that after reading the magnificent "A Map of the World," I expected to be blown away by everything Jane Hamilton created thereafter. Unfortunately, upon first reading "Disobedience," I found myself to be more than a little disappointed.
The idea is simple enough: 17 year old Henry Shaw accidently stumbles upon a stream of e-mails between his mother and her extramarital lover. Of course, this discovery forces Henry to re-examine everything he thinks he knows about his family, himself, and life in general. I found this basic story to be a compelling idea rich with possibilities. Unfortunately, the story seems to lose focus on more than one occassion, and moves relatively slowly throughout. I found Henry's sister, Elvira, to be horribly over-examined from the beginning; a mistake only slightly redeemed by the end of the book.
With all of that being said, I find myself growing more fond of the book as I put more distance between myself and the reading. I believe the priciple idea behind it was unique and compelling. I admire the fact that writers like Hamilton can create a novel from something so simple, so un-earth-shattering. I'd probably enjoy it more upon a second read. Of course, that may not be enough to tempt you to give it a first read.
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