Jane Hamilton’s best-known novel is A Map of the World, but the title describes all her fiction. Beginning with The Book of Ruth (like Map, an Oprah’s Book Club selection), the award-laden Hamilton has excelled at depicting shifting interior geography. She’s become an expert at identifying how prevailing emotional conditions within a family and/or cataclysms of dumb fate can affect a woman’s — usually it’s a woman’s — borders. And she charts personal landscapes with the kind of melodious, impressive-but-not-unsettling insights and prose style that mark so much of today’s upper-middlebrow, gynocentric literature — and so many Oprah’s Book Club selections.
But maybe, just maybe, Hamilton herself is chafing at being pegged as that nice writer lady from Wisconsin. In her last novel, 1998’s The Short History of a Prince, the author sought access, if ambivalently, into the head of a gay suburban man. In Disobedience, she speaks in self-confident first person, assuming the voice of Henry Shaw, who, when this (relatively) rollicking story begins, is looking back a decade, to when he was a 17-year-old high school kid. That was when, as the most computer-literate member of his family, Henry barged into private e-mails and discovered that his 38-year-old mother, Beth, was having an affair.
Hamilton, who gives her characters attractively boho circumstances, establishes the Shaws as attractive bohos with a difference: They’ve left the clog dancing and madrigal singing of back-roads Vermont — for a city! In Chicago, Henry’s father, Kevin, teaches high school; his mother works freelance as a musician; and his 13-year-old sister, Elvira, is an obsessive Civil War reenactor, despising all things feminine and preferring to dress in authentic 19th-century uniform. (In reenactments, she calls herself Elvirnon.)
Elvira is a pip, a fabulous creation, whose every escapade vibrates with sexually protean, adolescent energy: She shaves off her hair; she has eyes only for girls; she hangs out with a really awful best friend; she puts herself in danger, Boys Don’t Cry-style, when she’s outed at a Shiloh reenactment. Hamilton loves her, it’s clear, not least because Elvira frees the author from the constraints of womanly, authorly sensibleness. Kevin and Beth may argue over their daughter’s stubborn eccentricities, encoding all their marital strains in their conflicting attitudes toward her gender-bending interests. Hamilton pretty much lets Elvira fire all the crazy ammo she pleases.
But Disobedience isn’t Elvira’s story, not really, even though she regularly displays civil disobedience to conventions of femininity. It’s Henry’s, on behalf of the civil disobedience acted out by every member of his family: His mother threatens the contract of the Shaw family with her adulterous passion, his father colludes by nature of his nonjudgmental passivity (a trait he shares with Alice’s recessive husband in A Map of the World), and Henry risks blowing his role as wiseacre but fundamentally good son (Beth’s book-group women friends tease him by calling him ”amiable”). Furious and confused, he also juggles guilt at his own unlawfulness, and — in the midst of it all — suffers love-lust pangs for an ethereal teenager named Lily, who ”sang in a Balkan choir, she practiced the violin… she was planning on going to Sarah Lawrence.”
As befits its title, Disobedience is an unruly book. Sometimes Hamilton slips from the exciting gangliness of Henry’s teen male voice into the tidy observations of a smooth woman writer. (A female friend tells Henry that ”both married and unmarried women want to take the mismatched man and clasp him to their bosoms.”) Ultimately she abandons the opportunity to get really wild — to stage her own authorial Civil War against the state of women’s domestic fiction — and settles for drawing yet another prettily colored map of one family’s world. But when she abandons her own traditional code of literary manners, Jane Hamilton steps into a new world as exciting as it is uncharted. B+