Gain braids together two stories on very different scales. In one, Laura Body, divorced mother of two and a real-estate agent in the small town of Lacewood, Illinois, plunges into a new existence when she learns that she has ovarian cancer. In the other, Clare & Company, a soap manufacturer begun by three brothers in nineteenth-century Boston, grows over the course of a century and a half into an international consumer products conglomerate based in Laura's hometown. Clare's stunning growth reflects the kaleidoscopic history of America; Laura Body's life is changed forever by Clare. The novel's stunning conclusion reveals the countless invisible connections between the largest enterprises and the smallest lives.
A novelist who has always taken inspiration from scientific and historical research, most recently in the AI-centered Galatea 2.2, Powers now follows the lead of environmentally concerned writers Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen and Rick Moody by returning to the great (newly literalized) myth behind Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables: that the tainted American soil will take revenge on us for the sins of our exploitative fathers. In Powers's ambitious but mechanical novel, the victim is Laura Bodey, a real estate agent and single mother whose Midwestern town of Lacewood is polluted with mysterious carcinogens produced by its biggest employer, the Clare Soap and Chemical corporation. Laura's battle with ovarian cancer takes up half the book, but the novel really belongs to Clare itself. Interspersing Laura's story with the company's history from 1820s Boston to the present, Powers touches lightly on myriad aspects of American life over the last 170 years: the millennialist religious revival of William Miller, the Civil War, the changing fashions of advertising (perhaps the novel's most entertaining subplot), the history of labor and management. Although they never mesh with Laura's present-day misadventures ("tragedy" is much too strong for such an academic book), the Clare chronicles play to Powers's strengths (literary pastiche, historical and scientific summary, witty description, a knack for idyll) and cover his weaknesses (clunky dialogue, flat characters, portentous commonplaces). The result is impressive and imaginative, albeit a little puzzling. Powers has given us the historical novel as survey course--a curiosity that we never knew we needed but that we can't keep from admiring.
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Not easy to read
I think Echo Maker is Powers' finest work. The history of this soap/chemical industry was so tedious once we got past the first generation of Clairs, I just wanted it to be over. Laura's story, in contrast, was compelling as her days were eaten away by the cancer cells multiplying inside her. Her story would have been enough. The corporate story was simply too long in the telling.
Richard Powers's Finest Novel To Date
The way I describe this book when I am trying to convince friends to read it is that it's two intersecting cross sections of our way of life. The main story is a horizontal section taken through the life of an ordinary woman, a single mother trying to get by as a real estate agent in a small company town. This story is told in parallel with the history of the company itself, a Poctor & Gamble-esque megacorporation.
The key driver of the story is that the woman gets cancer and blames the company plant, but this is not a book about the heroic cancer victim campaigning against corporate evil, but how the way we live, the decisions we make, and go we got to be here interact in a kind of inevitability.
There is a moment, which I will try not to spoil, in the book, which is almost a literary frozen pan. Suddenly the narrative freezes and Powers describes a vertical cross section of a moment. How a typical product got to be at a particular place and time. Then the story continues to its inevitable conclusion.
Not a happy book, but a compelling an thought-provoking one.