My extended family recently congregated at my brother’s beach house. They have a bookshelf that’s evolved into a book exchange and since I'd just finished Jodi Picoult’s Mercy, I left it there in exchange for Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog. The book cover didn’t necessarily entice me but it had street cred; it was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and #1 on the NYT bestseller list (it was also an Oprah's Book Club pick in 2000 but I don’t always see eye-to-eye with O.) so I decided to give it a try.
The book starts by introducing a once-respected former colonel by the name of Massoud Behrani. The colonel and his family have been exiled from Iran after the Iranian Revolution. He has not been able to establish a career in America so he works long hours at menial jobs to keep up appearances.
In the next chapter, we learn about Kathy Nicolo, a recovering addict, who is being evicted from her bungalow in the California hills—a home long owned by her family—because of a county bookkeeping mistake.
Their paths cross when Kathy’s house is put on auction and Behrani spends his life savings to purchase the house at a fraction of its worth. He views the opportunity as fortune smiling on him, and plans to flip the house as a means of establishing himself as a successful real estate investor/business man.
A third character, Police Deputy Lester Burdon, comes to Kathy’s house to evict her. Although Burdon is married with two young children, he and Kathy become romantically involved.
The forth main character in the book is the house itself. In fact, the entire plot circles around the bungalow. The characters get so caught up in their quest for owning the house that they lose sight of themselves, resulting in a set of circumstances that go horribly wrong.
The book is written in the first person, switching between several of the main characters. The use of a first person POV gives the reader a clear picture of what each character is going through on a mental and emotional level.
Cultural misunderstandings as well as exploring the married relationship between the Behranis and the desperate relationship between Kathy and Lester keep this book moving forward.
At first, it seemed obvious who the protagonist and who the antagonist were but as the book continued, the lines blurred. Dubus has a gift for presenting two completely different viewpoints; he transitions from chapter to chapter skillfully using precise language for each character, and lets the reader decide for himself. Sometimes I was seduced into an empathetic attraction to one character and a disgusting revulsion to another and then the tables turned and so did my sympathies. The author created a believable, involved psychological portrait of his main characters, shining a light on their gifts as well as their flaws.
The BadOh the poor, pitiful ending. Listen, as a fiction writer I know how difficult it is to bring everything to a satisfying end but to call this ending unsatisfying is giving it far too much credit. I had a hard time accepting that this was the best Andre Dubus III could do.
A movie was made from the book, starring Ben Kingsly as Behrani and Jennifer Connelly as Kathy. Good casting choices, but I haven't seen the movie and I'm not sure I will. The story is dark and left me with a feeling of hopelessness.
Have you read House of Sand and Fog? I'd love to hear other opinions.