The author of Three Junes sets a variety of hungry hearts on a collision course in her new novel
The Whole World Over
By Julia Glass
Pantheon, 509 pp., $25.95
Julia Glass's sprawling second novel is a medley of geographic locales, little and large emotional sagas, and things that go bump in the night -- the terrors, private or collective, that wake us and make us change our lives. Like Glass's first novel, ``Three Junes," which won the National Book Award in 2002, ``The Whole World Over" is a novel in triptych, though its three sections are less discrete and less tightly focused than those of its predecessor. As a novelist who works on large canvases, Glass tends to view the world through six or more degrees of separation -- one character here perceives the planet, actually and symbolically, as connected through the migratory patterns of birds in flight. It's an apt metaphor, suggesting as it does a panoramic beauty as well as near - mathematical precision. In Glass's whole world over, an accidental meeting in the West Village can influence the lives in Santa Fe or rural Connecticut for generations to come.
But then that's long been a fact of Manhattan, where sheer cellular density means more life-changing events happen faster than anywhere else -- a fact compounded and made tragic by 9/11. ``The Whole World Over" takes as its nexus the West Village in the year 2000, in and around the bookstore of the protagonist from ``Three Junes" -- Fenno McLeod, the gravely likable gay Scotsman whose closest relationship is with a parrot named Felicity. Fenno has a key but crucial part in this story, his calm presence and surrounds providing the crossroads for its disparate characters. And while the novel lacks the depth or emotional resonance of ``Three Junes," it is nonetheless an ambitiously realized tapestry of several intersecting lives.
At the center of the novel is Greenie Duquette, a pastry chef, and her husband, Alan, a therapist whose world-weary demeanor predictably takes the air out of her finest confections. The two have a 4-year-old son, George, who at this point in their 10-year-old marriage is the best (maybe only) thing they have in common. When Walter, the restaurant owner who gave Greenie her first big break, mentions her name to an out-of-town hotshot looking for a cook, the path is broken for Greenie to make a graceful exit -- from New York.
The new job is -- sakes alive, as Walter might say -- private chef to the governor of New Mexico, and because this is a novel where such things happen, Greenie will leave a trail of powdered sugar all the way to Santa Fe. But if life in the land of adobe and burritos is at first enchanted, complete with a six-gun charmer for a boss and culinary freedoms that Julia Child would have sanctioned, Greenie soon has to face the letdown of fleeing a problem. Alan, struggling with a dwindling patient load in New York, resents her success and refuses to make the leap to join her . Boy George is at the age where innocence and self-determination are in constant collision. And oh, there's this handsome lawyer from Greenie's past whose appearance is making her twist her wedding ring with more than just nervous tension.
Back on Bank Street in the Village, Walter has his own set of heart flutters to battle. He's fallen for a handsome attorney named Gordie who's enmeshed in a long-term relationship with Stephen. Stephen and Gordie, torn apart by whether to adopt, go into couples counseling with Alan. Alan has also had a chance meeting with a young woman who calls herself Saga, an animal lover who takes in strays, and who is trying to piece her life back together after a brain injury. And yes, it's all a bit too close to ``As the World Turns," particularly because the thematic link among all these people is reproduction. Everyone in ``The Whole World Over" is struggling with the baby question : whether to, when to, how to, how to go on without. Glass insists on quoting entire plots of children's books and entire conversations with 4-year-olds, thrown in with spurious authorial comments about parenthood. The result is tiresome and dangerously sentimental, as bloated in feel-good emotion as those five-course dinners in New Mexico are with calories.
And speaking of the menus. We know every concoction in Greenie's kitchen, beginning with the coconut cake she baked to woo the guv'nor. This truckload of particularity points to the strength as well as the problem with the novel. Glass is admirably deft at setting up a scene, whether New York or a summer camp in Maine. Sometimes her sense of detail is equally vibrant when applied to a character: Saga, with her wobbly memory and her love of words and her need to do right, is as compelling as anyone in the novel. But too often the grinding specifics feel like filler in a 500-plus -page novel, when the more pressing questions -- why Greenie's mother was such a tyrant, Alan and Greenie's separate decisions about their marriage -- are addressed either cursorily or without much credibility.
Without giving anything away, I will say that the continuity of Glass's imagined world takes over at the end, and the last 70 pages of ``The Whole World Over" nearly make up for its failings. The compassion and depth she displayed in ``Three Junes" have a full stage here, and the novel comes together in ways both wrenching and gratifying. Stumbling through her post-injury world, Saga has often found respite in a fenced patio of a closed restaurant in the Village; she takes her sleeping bag there and nestles between two potted trees, out of harm's way. This sense of shelter -- of trying to find what is yours and what is safe -- is at the heart of ``The Whole World Over," even if you do have to sift through an excess of ingredients to get there.
Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at email@example.com. See Bookings, Page E6, for information on a local appearance by Julie Glass.