Friday, December 05, 2008

Recovering Charles: What Will Be Lost and What Will Be Found in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After reading Christmas Jars by Jason F. Wright, I vowed never to choose this author again (you can read my "scathing" review of the book here). Then, I started hearing some buzz about Wright's newest novel, Recovering Charles. My reader's brain went, "Hmmm ... Could I be missing something here?" Then, a few people (including my mom) recommended I read it. Still, I refused. When the leader of my book club (an enthusiastic Wright fan) selected it for last month's read, I realized I was done for - I stopped resisting, and read the darn thing. And guess what? Much to my surprise, it wasn't half bad.

The story stars Luke Millward, a photographer living in New York City. Luke's life is good, if a bit hollow. His career is going well, he's got a nice apartment and a beautiful best friend who would love to be more. Luke's future is almost bright enough to outshine the pain of his past. Then, he receives a phone call that brings old anguish screaming into the present: His father is missing. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Charles Millward is nowhere to be found.

Although Charles' friend, Jerome, begs Luke to come to New Orleans to search for his father, Luke hesitates. After all, they haven't spoken since the last time Charles called pleading for money. He said he'd try to quit, promised to stick with AA this time, but Luke had cut him off, told his father not to contact him again. Once a "brilliant musician," (2) who "bled his heart through [his] saxophone" (159), the old man had disintegrated into a drunken, musical failure, saddled with debt and heartbreak. He communicates with his son for one reason only: money. Now, the older man is missing, possibly dead. Luke can't quite convince himself not to care, so he heads out to New Orleans.

In the ravaged, desperate city Luke finds a refuge in Verses, the bar where Charles played saxophone to pay the rent. The Verses family - including Charles' fiancee, his musician buddies, and a pretty Tulane student - describe a Charles Luke never knew. Is it possible the old man really changed his ways? Luke ponders the question as he sifts through Katrina's detritus to find his father. Is Charles alive or dead? Will Luke get a chance to reconcile with his old man? Does he even want to? As Luke grapples with his emotions, the most compelling question emerges - Who, really, is lost, and who, truly, needs to be found? In a crumbling city, Luke must launch a desperate search to find the answers - for his father and for himself.

The kind of sentimentality that ruins Christmas Jars exists here, but it's balanced by a gritty backdrop and the raw emotion devastation usually inspires. The story's ultimately hopeful, but also painfully realistic. I found the main characters likeable (although Luke was a little cold for me), even though they could have been fleshed out more. Too many minor characters overwhelm the reader, stealing focus from the major players. I also think Wright verges on preachy when he tries to make certain points - like the fact that not all of Katrina's victims were poor and uneducated - and this also distracts from the story. Wright does deserves kudos for an unexpected, (although still somewhat predictable) ending, which made me cry despite some cheesy overtones.

All in all, though, I found Recovering Charles a compelling and inspirational read. It's a much better effort than Christmas Jars, probably because it actually required effort. Since I'm nothing if not forgiving, I even put Wright's The Wednesday Letters back on my TBR list. I'm hoping for another pleasant surprise.

Grade: B


7 comments:

  1. Hello! I found your blog several months ago and have been reading along, but this is my first time to comment. I haven't read anything by this author yet, but The Wednesday Letters is on my nightstand now and The Chrismas Jars and Recovering Charles are on my TBR list. It was to read your reviews. Thank you for sharing them.

    Oh, by the way, I usually read your blog in a reader, but clicked over today to leave this comment. I LOVE your backdrop with all the books stacked up. It has a very welcoming and cozy feel. The top book, Garden Spells, is awesome! I loved it so much. I can highly recommend The Sugar Queen as well if you haven't read it yet. So good!

    Sorry for the long comment. Keep up the good writing.

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  2. It's usually only book clubs that can force me to read stuff like this! And sometimes I am pleasantly surprised, like you were. Maybe I'll try this one (or recommend it for my book club!)

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  3. oops...i meant to say:

    it was "interesting" to read your reviews.

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  4. This really gave me a health chuckle. Thanks for such a thoughtful review. And I'm grateful you gave me a second chance!

    Maybe the next book will be only 1/4 bad instead of half ;-)

    Merry Christmas!

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  5. I see Jason has already commented but I'll throw mine in too. I found your comments intersting and insightful. I've enjoyed reading people's reactions to Jason's writing. Thanks for all of your honesty!

    check out Jason's website to see his latest contest:

    http://www.jasonfwright.com/triptosvalley.php

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  6. I was pretty obsessed with watching the Hurricane Katrina coverage, so Recovering Charles brought it all back ;) It's my favorite out of Wright's books. But then again, Wednesday Letters was a cool story. So hard to choose. Thanks for your reviews.

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  7. This was my absolute favorite of Jason Wright's books. (However, I have not read the most recent releases.) The fact is, I'm horrible at knowing what is going on in the world around me, and if a book can help me understand, then I do very well. This book really brought to life Hurricane Katrina for me. I appreciated that it wasn't too long and detailed but still had me feeling like I was right there in the middle of it all.

    Also, I agree with you about Christmas Jars. It was a cute Christmas story, but there are already a ton of those out there. Thus, I was not very impressed. This story was much more unique and memorable for me.

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