Book review: Want Not by Jonathan Miles

Miles's second novel is stuffed with big ideas but its panoramic approach makes some central characters feel tiny

Photograph: Melissa Sinclair
By Laura van den Berg. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14.

Jonathan Miles’s second novel follows three seemingly disparate plotlines: Freegans Talmadge and Micah find their relationship tested when Talmadge’s friend Matty visits their squat; an emotionally cold suburban family comprising widowed Sara, her boorish new husband, Dave, and daughter Alexis struggle with grief and failed relationships; and linguist Elwin Cross Jr. cares for his Alzheimer’s-stricken father while working on a humanitarian project with implications that will last for millennia.

As befits a book that encompasses national tragedies and the limits of material satisfaction, Miles presents big ideas for his protagonists to defend or contradict. A long passage on Micah’s troubled family history makes for a masterful character study.

The panoramic approach leaves certain cast members less well rendered. Matty arrives practically wearing a shirt that reads potential disaster. Sara initially seems like one of the book’s central characters, but she recedes into the background of the drama playing out between her husband and daughter. Still, the occasional moment of rapturous prose, the blend of ideas and characters and the knowing evocation of New Jersey geography result in a novel that’s sharp and occasionally breathtaking.