I came to this novel with a certain wariness. For one thing it is written entirely in dialogue, which in itself is not an easy thing to pull off and further complicated by not having any dialogue tags or chapter breaks. For another, the two people talking are women and the author is a man. On the other hand, it had been praised by Jen Michalski, an accomplished author herself and a friend.
I needn’t have worried. The two women’s voices are sufficiently distinct that I knew who was talking without counting back. Also, if more should be needed, their different situations provide clues. The setup—the reason for their meeting—comes across naturally, without the strain one might expect. And their wide-ranging conversation held my interest through the last page.
Sabine, a German physicist, has requested a meeting with Renata, an economist and philanthropist. Although famously reclusive, Renata has agreed and arranged for them to meet in a hotel lounge. They are in Boston where Renata and her husband Mark, a famous mathematician, live and where Renata has come for a conference.
The conversation between the two women strays naturally from one topic to another, Renata’s strange diet, Jewish jokes, quantum physics, dancing, the BRCA mutation that causes breast cancer, Pushkin and Dumas. They circle back to Sabine’s reason for asking to meet Renata, but then another fascinating topic leads them off again. Not unexpectedly, this conversation between a German and a Jew must eventually lead to talking of the Holocaust and their respective parents’ experiences, but they approach this subject with care and mutual respect.
These two strong and unconventional women circle ever closer to each other despite their differences. Even Sabine’s reason for contacting Renata, when she finally discloses it, is treated with intelligence and surprising generosity.
While there are no hard and fast writing rules, we are discouraged from using dialogue to convey narrative. For example, the excellent writer Chuck Wendig says, “Expository dialogue is a pair of cement shoes.” Writing teachers everywhere caution about info-dumping in dialogue. It is awkward and boring. As Wendig says, the way to make it work is to “Limit the information learned; pull puzzle pieces out and take them away to create mystery. Let characters be reluctant to give any info, much less dump it over someone’s head.”
This is the secret to Berengaut’s successful use of dialogue here. He gives us bits of information that raise more questions and cause the conversation to veer off in another direction. He also varies the pace effectively by using longer and shorter bits of dialogue.
The other reason for the success of this unusual novel lies in the depth and complexity of the two characters. I wish I knew these women! I love conversations such as theirs, ranging through highly literate and learned subjects as well as through popular music, jokes, and television shows. I found their exchange as addictive as following links across the internet.
My only quibble with the book is that I came away feeling that I did not in fact know the two women. Perhaps because of the form or because they do not know each other at the beginning, I felt a certain distance. I knew a lot about them by the end, and the face they presented to each other, but they seemed a bit artificial to me. I didn’t know what they looked like, what they thought about in the middle of the night, what secrets they were not sharing. Of course we never do know everything about another person, but I missed seeing them in action, hearing their thoughts. Perhaps it is my own failing, but I don’t quite trust what characters say about themselves. I love when a tiny gesture betrays the unspoken thought contradicting what was said.
Still, the novel is without doubt a tour de force. The conversation between Sabine and Renata makes absorbing and fascinating reading.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.