America Explained: Douglas Kennedy's Strangely Mesmerising New Novel: The Great Wide Open Reads like an Old Friend Recounting a Tale over Dinner

By Sansom, Ian | New Statesman (1996), January 18, 2019 | Go to article overview

America Explained: Douglas Kennedy's Strangely Mesmerising New Novel: The Great Wide Open Reads like an Old Friend Recounting a Tale over Dinner


Sansom, Ian, New Statesman (1996)


Kennedy, just in case you haven't been paying attention, is a modern man of letters and an international best-seller. According to his publisher he currently "divides his time between Maine, Manhattan, Paris, London and Berlin": most of us can barely manage to divide our time between work and home. But Kennedy is restless, both personally and professionally, and in terms of style and genre. Essentially, he writes glossy high-end sagas that have a steely literary core. The obvious comparison might be with the work of, say, Robert Harris: books that are not only readable and accomplished but also somehow unsettling.

He has sold millions of copies worldwide, which of course makes one wonder why--and how. American, born in Manhattan, Kennedy started out writing radio plays while working at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin: which perhaps explains his ability with dialogue; his characters can really talk. He then worked as a columnist for the Irish Times and wrote for these pages, the Guardian, the Sunday Times, GQ and Esquire--which perhaps explains the smoothness of the style. He knocked out a few travel books: which perhaps explains the scope of the work, its ambition. And he also has an excellent podcast in which he discusses all sorts of personal, political and literary subjects, which clearly indicates the depths that lurk beneath the surface.

The Great Wide Open is Kennedy's 13th novel. I've read half a dozen or more, starting with his second, The Big Picture (1997), which set the tone of the books that have followed: long, languorous, immersive tales about rich, intelligent people, often women, who find themselves in unexpected circumstances and who somehow muddle through. Thoughtful, troubling, slightly sexy: in France, where Kennedy has lived for many years, his work is revered and he is a Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The books read like super plush versions of Simenon's romans durs ("tough" novels)--romans doux, perhaps.

The narrator of The Great Wide Open is Alice Burns, born to an American Irish Catholic father and a Jewish mother, who works in publishing in New York. Over the course of almost 600 pages Alice tells us her family's whole sorry history during the previous 40 years, which usefully illuminates the recent past of America, "a great country with a crazed violent underside to it". …

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