Stella Descending: A Novel Paperback – Jul 13 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
One part unsolvable mystery, one part modern fairy tale, Ullmann's second novel is a wonderfully strange follow-up to 1998's well-received Before You Sleep. In the early morning hours of August 2000 in Oslo, the "more beautiful than beautiful" Stella and her enigmatic husband, Martin, embrace on the roof just before she loses her precarious footing and falls to her death. The three eyewitnesses-each with a curious connection to Stella-and Corinne, the investigating officer, who has the ability to smell guilt, aim to decipher the nature of the embrace: was it Martin's failed effort to save his wife, or a successful attempt to push her? Among Stella's mourners are her two daughters, 15-year-old Amanda (who refers to Martin, her stepfather, as a "wicked sorcerer") and young Bee, whose birth inexplicably disturbed her father, Martin: "Sometimes I would get it into my head that the baby was evil." The mysteries are myriad: how did Martin and Stella feel about each other? What were their true intentions? Does Martin's penchant for bringing out the worst in people ("Other people's contempt is so easily aroused") preclude him from loving his wife? As the only character who doesn't take a turn narrating the story-even Stella chimes in from beyond the grave-he forfeits his chance to defend himself. Ullmann pairs her native Scandinavian starkness with playful prose-often sexually graphic-to peculiar, pleasing effect. The oddness may be off-putting at first, but once one enters Ullmann's hypnotic world, the reward is an emotionally rich and layered story about the elusiveness of truth.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Eluding her husband's embrace, Stella fell from a rooftop to her death, leaving an empty space in several lives. Or perhaps the spouses struggled, and she was pushed. No eyewitness will commit to either version. Ullmann's droll, disturbing novel presents much interesting behavior but not much conventional analysis of motivation. Martin adored Stella but feared her as the mother of their young daughter, who haunts his dreams but is otherwise silent. Old Axel, a friend from Stella's hospital workplace, found in her the only person to tell his bitterest secrets to. Stella's teenage daughter from her first marriage blames Martin and obsessively plays a video game when she isn't seducing the plumber, who came to fix the hot water and never left, and is as much a member of the family as the avocado green couch that brought Martin and Stella together (he delivered it and never left). Ullmann regards this actually fairly conventional family with a theatrical eye, imbuing each scene with portent. In the end, however, Stella and her death remain mysterious. Roberta Johnson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
To judge by the evidence of her 2001 novel Stella Descending Linn Ullmann was well on the way to keeping the flag flying. At the very least she takes a leaf out of the book in her portrayal of individuals not exactly content in the skins God has blessed them with, people for whom the mere fact of existence is a trial that ideally cannot pass soon enough. There are individual reasons for this but, yes, it may be something inescapable to the extent that it is inherent in the blood of those born in the wilds of northern Europe.
Stella's literal descent occurs early in the piece. As she is, decidedly, the warmest and most multi-dimensional among a cold lot this would be a pity but for the fact that she comes to life in the first person recollections of her near and dear, principally her ageing, irascible friend Axel. Then, in the second part of the novel, she is allowed considerable space to speak for herself.
The tag team first person narration is effective, allowing great intimacy as we inhabit the minds and worlds of Stella herself, Axel, a police special investigator (and through her Stella's enigmatic husband Martin), Stella's daughter from a previous relationship Amanda and even some of the witnesses to Stella's fall from a rooftop.
Whether Martin tried to save his wife or contributed to her fall is in its way beside the point. But the incident serves as the port of entry into a novel about worlds colliding and the inability of people to tell each other - even those to whom they are closest - what's really in their hearts. A curse, alas, that can pass from generation to generation like an unrequited family feud.
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?
Linn Ullmann uses different kinds of narrative throughout the novel. Even Stella narrates part of the novel after her death. Not only is the story told in various points of view, there are several stories within the story, fables as such, and has some rather bizarre magic realism and disarming erotica to boot. She did this with Before You Sleep, and it can be quite confusing if you don't follow the story. But that is what I love about this author. Ms. Ullmann writes with beautiful, stark prose. Her novels have a mixture of brutal truth and confounded metaphors. She is like Amanda Filipacchi in that she writes obscure, complex stories with magical realism and dark humor in the mix. This novel is though provoking to the max -- one that you will think about for days to come. I for one have placed this in my re-read pile. Are you in the bargain for a deep, literary read? I recommend Stella Descending.