The Glass Room/Simon Mawer: Reflections

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

As a kid, I rustled around in my great uncle's studio—the trunk of drawings, the crinkle of yellow trace, the endless stubs of pencils and color, the proof of his work as an architect of the Waldorf Astoria, the Pierre, so many other buildings.  As a new graduate of Penn, with a degree in the history of science, I went to work for an architectural firm—anything, I thought then, to get me close to those who shape and color space.  As a young woman, I fell in love with, I married, an architect.  I hung out with his friends, and they became mine.  Architecture was this home's second language.

And so I expected to be taken in, to be entranced by, Simon Mawer's The Glass Room—a novel of ideas, as many have written, a novel in which a single house designed by a Mies van der Rohe type genius, shapes and frames all 400 pages of the story.  But shapes and frames is not the same thing as animates—and it was this, this animating force, that I missed in what is surely a thoroughly well-researched (the house in the book is based on an actual house in Central Europe) and well-told tale that takes the reader from the modern age of the 1920s through the Nazi invasion and aftermath.  The glass house stands through it all—home, laboratory, school, museum.  The people—a Jewish industrialist and his Gentile wife, their children, the industrialist's lover and her child, the wife's almost-lover (her best friend, Hana), an anthropological doctor, a dancer—pass through. 

Such is life, of course.  Such is our reality.  We are all, only, passing through.  But real life need not be pinched to fit the confines of a book—the concept of a book.  In real life, often, loose ends are loose ends.  Coincidence is not packaged.  The messy bang-ups often lead nowhere.  They just are—signifying, perhaps, nothing. 

The Glass Room made me think, a lot, about what draws readers in and what keeps them slightly removed, about the difference between dazzling and engaging, about the sheen of perfection and the power of passion (however messy that might be).  It takes enormous skill to write a book like The Glass Room, and certainly Mawer is abundantly skilled.  But for this one reader, more deviation from idea would have been welcome, so as to make more room for heart.

3 comments:

Beth F said...

You know, I've held off reading The Glass Room because after seeing a couple of reviews, I thought it might lack . . . ummmm . . . soul.

bermudaonion said...

I agree with you that this book lacked heart. I know a lot of people loved it, though, so I felt like maybe I just wasn't smart enough to understand it.

Lilian Nattel said...

People like different things. I would find a book like that dry, but I know other people who would love it.

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