All Souls

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

When Christine Schutt’s Florida was nominated for a National Book Award in 2004, the outcry was piercing. In not one but two belligerent pieces in The New York Times, the book, an impressionistic portrait of a young girl whose mother goes insane, was disparaged as an esoteric novel that placed poetic virtuosity above the value of a good yarn.

As if in response, Schutt’s latest offering, All Souls, takes up a subject of enduring popular appeal: the Upper East Side prep school. Believe it or not, All Souls shares an identical subplot with Gossip Girl, in which a Park Avenue princess feels abandoned when her gay father decamps to France. Yet where the CW uses UES privilege as flashy stage dressing, Schutt mines the story for its mordant ironies. In Schutt’s telling, the attention-starved girl starves herself.

Another wraith lies at the center of All Souls: Astra Dell, a beatific, flame-haired dance student who sits out senior year while undergoing cancer treatment. Like Henry James’s Milly Theale, Astra is a stricken angel whose goodness disorganizes the lesser souls in her orbit; reactions to her illness motor what little plot the novel possesses. (The book is masterfully paced but thin on story.)

Some readers may complain that in her rush toward accessibility, Schutt has abandoned the gothic emotional intrigue (incest, for example) that made her previous books notable. Yet Schutt’s writing is sharp as ever, with a keen eye for life’s everyday grotesqueries: “Alex was sitting on a bag of ice but she was leaking” is how Schutt clocks the aftermath of a teen’s first Brazilian bikini wax. Schutt continues to capture the messiness and confusions particular to adolescence, but in All Souls, new terrain refreshes this writer’s astringent voice.

Schutt reads May 15, 2008 at Corner Bookstore.

By Christine Schutt. Harcourt, $22.