To Heaven by Water
Justin Cartwright
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Buy *To Heaven by Water* by Justin Cartwright online

To Heaven by Water
Justin Cartwright
Bloomsbury USA
320 pages
August 2009
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Retired television anchorman David Cross is having a midlife crisis. Although he experiences a familiar comfort, David is desperate to spend his remaining years in some way free of the material. David’s current crisis is fueled by his recollections of life in 1966 - he was never as happy as during that summer in Rome, when his friendship with the actor Richard Burton blossomed, “his eyes glistening with anguish.”

This was the summer that formed his and his best friend Adam's lives - David, too, would be a professional actor and live in a vivid, charged world. But the generational wheel turns very quickly, and now in contemporary London, David, is embarking on time of renewal. His wife, Nancy, having only recently died from cancer, has enabled David to begin a new lease on life.

Fanatically training at the local gym, he’s become super-thin and sports trendy bangles that Guy, his brother, has sent him from Africa. In his own mind, David is more himself than he has been for nearly forty years. Then, one night at the Royal ballet with his son, Ed, and daughter-in-law Rosalie, David sees the gorgeous vision of Darcey Bussell in her farewell performance. The ballerina has the effect of reducing David to tears.

This vision frames David‘s emotional state and propels the important aspects of the plot forward. In alternating chapters, Cartwright unfurls the desires, needs and insecurities of David, Ed, Rosalie, and Lucy, David’s twenty-six year-old daughter, who is a specialist in Roman coinage. She feels wary and worried about being alone and isolated after breaking up with Josh, her abusive boyfriend.

Rosalie, an ex-ballet dancer, almost “Darcy Bussell en pointe,” is desperate to become pregnant and has a very clear idea of how her life should proceed, constricting poor Ed, a successful lawyer who falls into an affair with a girl from his office, Alice. Buoyed along by the possibilities, sex with Alice is uncomplicated and fun; sex with Rosalie, on the other hand, has become a sort of marital rite, even an obligation.

Meanwhile, David contemplates selling the family home in Camden, hosts a book club, and talks about his experiences as a war correspondent in Afghanistan. Later he visits Guy in Africa and sees again that his current life is an intense search for the spiritual, perhaps the mystic. Full of meaningless provocations and loaded exchanges, all of Cartwright’s characters crave “the human texture,” an essential part of the rich tapestry of contemporary existence.

The novel is gorgeously layered against a backdrop of a new, dynamic, multicultural London that pulsates with savvy irony and endless tradition. There’s also a sense that the Cross family members are “of one flesh with a shared understanding,” even when their petty judgments and surprising betrayals seem to get the better of them. An astounding observer of human nature, Cartwright’s small intimacies and sharp insights into family relationships imbue this delicate and quite beautiful tale with great passion and life.

Click here for Michael Leonard's interview with To Heaven by Water author Justin Cartwright

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2009

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