Julia Glass’s “And the Dark Sacred Night” is a novel on subjects Glass does best: parents and children, the ephemerality of beauty, the inexplicability of desire, the nature of “lasting love,” and the definition of family. The title is a line from the classic song “What a Wonderful World,” which two characters discuss in a couples’ therapist’s office during the book’s third section. For them, “the bright blessed day” is the present, “the dark sacred night” the past. Ultimately, for Glass’s characters, the past is at once dark — inaccessible, mysterious, and sometimes frightening — and sacred, the fount of all our blessings.
In “And the Dark Sacred Night,” confrontation between present and past takes many forms: a son’s quest for his father, an elegy for a vanishing New York City, the shadow cast by former lovers and friends on current relationships, the AIDS crisis. Kit is an unemployed art historian who is “past forty,’’ saddled with twins, a mortgage, and a sense of “paralysis,” is pushed into searching for his biological father by his wife, Sandra, whose frustration with his “inertia” has reached a breaking point. His father’s identity has been zealously guarded by his mother, Daphne, so Kit reaches out to his stepfather, Jasper, long divorced from Daphne, who in turns puts Kit in touch with the powerful and wealthy Zeke and Lucinda Burns.
The Burnses, it turns out, are the parents of Malachy, the eminent music critic who died of AIDS in Glass’s acclaimed first novel, “Three Junes,” and more characters from “Three Junes” return during the family reunion weekend that results from Kit’s search. Along the way, startling discoveries are made and longings and resentments resurface.
There is so much to admire about Julia Glass and her work. There’s her improbable Cinderella story, her overnight transformation from unpublished 40-something mother of two to a 2002 National Book Award winner for “Three Junes.” There’s her fluid, unshowy prose, her subtle, non-judgmental approach to potentially controversial topics, her compassion and appreciation for her imperfect, struggling, sometimes prickly characters. Her sensibility, her values, her subjects are immensely appealing.
Why, then, did I find myself so often at odds with or oddly detached from “And The Dark Sacred Night?” Why did I wince or mumble “Come on!” or scribble “Really?!” in the margins of my book far too many times? Why, alternately, did I read for pages at a time without feeling much strong emotion?
The first obstacle, I think, is the plot. The set-up, the decision that sets the book in motion, feels too much like a novelist’s trick. Glass seems aware of the improbability of Daphne’s having kept the secret of Kit’s paternity for so many years (not to mention the secrets upon secrets that divide Zeke and Lucinda) and has her characters explain and justify that secrecy in exchanges tainted by a whiff of defensiveness or anxiety. And while it may be true that “people hunger to know where they came from,” I never felt the quest for Kit’s biological father was either a plausible solution to his professional and personal malaise or that it promised a great payoff emotionally.
Moreover, as the novel draws to its conclusion, its plot takes a crucial twist so improbable as to be almost preposterous. That twist neatly demonstrates some of the book’s themes — the tenuous nature of connection, the randomness of fate, the fragility of love — but in the very neatness reminds us of the gears turning and the novelist’s too-palpable design. What happens is so extreme, and so unlikely, while at the same time being so perfectly devised to make a point, that I reacted to it as a contrivance, plain and simple.
The second impediment to my wholehearted involvement in Glass’s novel: its characters. I empathized with Kit, but I never cared enough about him or his marriage to become invested in where the quest would take him and whether it would succeed in giving him a renewed sense of purpose. Glass fails to captures his and Sandra’s chemistry, their bond, or give us a compelling reason to root for them to stay together. The sections of the novel where we’re in Kit’s head are its least affecting, perhaps because they are narrated in present tense and Kit is a character without much energy, or purpose.
By contrast, the sections of “And the Dark Sacred Night” where we’re in the head of Fenno McLeod, the Greenwich Village bookstore owner featured in several of Glass’s previous novels, are by far its strongest, in part because he and his partner, Walter, are both innately appealing — complex, quirky, distinctive — with a more poignant, textured relationship and a wiser, more interesting way of looking at the world. Fenno and Walter’s spunk and spark, both individually and collectively, only bring into relief the relative flatness of Kit, Sandra, and their relationship, whose saving is the putative point of the novel’s entire trajectory.
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale and Vassar and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.”