Unfortunately, I read Ullmann's Cold Song first, her most recent novel, and Cold Song is much more intelligent and fleshed out than Stella Descending. This says to me that Ullmann is growing and developing as a novelist, but in itself Stella Descending is a disappointment.
I could not identify with any of the characters. I disliked all the characters and sometimes wanted to tell them all to "get a life." Bent on self-destruction and the destruction of others, Stella and Martin are just incomprehensible characters. It is hard to know why they married each other, what they expect from each other, and why they are constantly so mean and nasty. At times reading this book is a real chore, an invitation to participate in the neurotic games of spouses who lack self-awareness and never try to clarify to themselves why they act the way they do. For example, when Martin has the nightmares about Bee and cannot sleep, he does not mention them to his wife because he is afraid of her reaction. There is a thick wall between these two, which they have built themselves, and they can't hear each other over or through this wall. Is there no therapy in Norway? If I had Martin's dreams, I would have gone to a therapist, and I would tell my husband about them. In the absence of therapy, or let's say psychological understanding, the writer cannot do much to explain her characters. She throws them into depths she cannot herself fathom. She plays around with them, providing various narrative techniques, but no clarity regarding their motives. Even the girls--Amanda and Bee--are off-putting. They are all grown-up in their cynicism and lack of wonder. Who would want to be in their vicinity? Reviewers have called it "magic realism," but in the absence of empathy for any of the characters, how can this book be magical in any way?