Welcome to the Dollhouse

Jane Hamilton
The Short History of a Prince: A Novel
Random House

The 1970s are an unlikely subject for nostalgia, but some 20 years after the fact they are, nonetheless. And though the decade of smiley faces and shag carpets may be an even more suspect source for an elegy, its spirit pervades The Short History of a Prince, the latest novel by Jane Hamilton. A paean to a pre-AIDS era, when suburbs were (in Hamilton's view) home to eccentricity and the site of artistic aspirations, and public schools were well-funded and stocked with serious students, the novel shuttles between the supposedly inglorious present decade and a halcyon past.

The book opens on the morning of August 10, 1972, with its protagonist, 15-year-old aspiring ballet dancer Walter McCloud, living alongside his family and elder brother on Maplewood Avenue in Oakridge, Illinois. This morning, the McCloud family is scheduled to drive to the family estate on Lake Margaret in Wisconsin to attend the 25th-anniversary party of Walter's aunt and uncle. During the course of the night, however, Walter's brother Daniel has developed a tennis-ball-sized tumor on the side of his neck. Disconcerted, the family nevertheless sets out, leaving Daniel behind. In a car loaded with deviled eggs and jello molds, and Walter's two best friends, fellow ballet students Mitch and Susan, the family leaves home, never quite to return.

True to the '70s Ur-narrative--think Love Story, think Death Be Not Proud--Walter's brother Daniel ends up confronting cancer, a fact that alters the course of Walter's life. The novel's chapters alternate between scenes from Walter's youth and his early middle age, when at 38 he returns to the Midwest to teach high school and confront his past.

From the opening, Hamilton suggests that Walter has loved three things in his life: the ballet, his friend Mitch, and the family estate. The question of what has come of these passions drives the novel and makes the book a fast read. But it is the evocation of the rigors of ballet training--the details about ballet's history and forms and less widely known masters (Petipa, Fokine)--that gives texture and interest to the melodrama.

Hamilton, who lives in an orchard farmhouse in Wisconsin, knows well the Middle American landscape, and the familiarity shows in description like the following:

There was nothing good about Schaumburg, in his opinion, not the mall around which the town had recently been built, not the corporate headquarters, not the concrete sprawl of it, not even the sweet backward intentions of the planners who wanted to build a Main Street with a mock downtown. He did not like the wide new streets in Lucy's subdivision, with cul-de-sacs that were supposed to prevent undesirable people from speeding and pillaging.

Here, as elsewhere, Hamilton has a sense for the shape of the land and its people beneath the bland anonymity of their outer trappings.

Hamilton is a skillful writer--she won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel, The Book of Ruth, and authored the best-selling A Map of the World--but there is something claustrophobic about her miniatures of middle-class life. Walter uncomfortably embodies the cliché of the closet-case instructor as he puts his students through their paces in the spring musical and teaches them to appreciate Romeo and Juliet. His opinions seem less expressive of an individual than a recap of '90s pop sociology and sentimentality: "'Some of my students don't believe in love,' Walter said. 'A lot of them live with one parent, which probably explains their skepticism. I suppose I learned about real adult love from my parents. Not about ecstasy, per se, but about the quiet, unheralded splendors of a shared history.'"

Like Walter, who spends his 20s and 30s working in a dollhouse shop on Manhattan's Upper East Side, "selling furniture and house kits, and teaching his customers how to install the dinkiest marble tile, hardwood for floors, period molding and slate shingles," Hamilton risks remaking the big world into something small through her efforts.

True to the '70s template, The Short History of a Prince founders in that no-man's-land between melodrama and social-issue story. Like a TV movie of the week, the narrative moves from crisis to crisis, rubbing elbows with the hot issues of the moment--Internet-based anomie, the dissolution of public education, homosexuality, infidelity, untimely death--until every life seems screen-sized, too small to take seriously.

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