Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence by David Samuel Levinson has all the qualities of a stellar debut novel: strong characters, interesting setting, complex plot and a hint of suspense. Set in the small college town of Winslow, New York, Levinson depicts the town vividly and the reader gets to know the town and its inhabitants through several engaging characters.
Catherine Strayed has lived in Winslow for several years but has never felt completely settled there. After leaving her own academic pursuits behind to move with her new husband, Wyatt to Winslow, where he received an offer to become a professor of creative writing at the small liberal arts college., Catherine settles into life working at the local bookstore. Catherine is a complex character, and her relationship with Wyatt is revealed throughout the story from her own memories and those of other characters.
Wyatt has been dead for over a year at the beginning of the novel, and much of the suspense lies in whether his death was an accident, suicide, or something more sinister. Catherine struggles to uncover her own feelings about their relationship and her past while dealing with new issues as well.
Into this scenario enters Antonia Lively, a young author protégé of the famed literary critic and professor, Henry Swallow. Henry and Catherine have a history as well, one that has a colossal impact on her life with Wyatt. Antonia, Catherine and Henry are all dealing with inner demons and questioning their own life and work at various points in the novel and seeing them interact while managing these problems is truly captivating.
A running theme in the novel is the question of “who decides the merit of literature?”. Does it matter where the author gets the idea for a story, who gets to judge a story, why are certain types of literature more accepted than others? All these issues are touched upon in the novel and the reader gets the sense that Levinson has grappled with these ideas at length in his own life.
My only complaint about the story is the unnecessary plot twist involving the narrator of the story. When the narrator’s identity was revealed I was completely confused. I had to go back to the beginning of the novel to see if I had missed an obvious clue, but no, it really came out of left field. Throughout the story the narrator depicts scenes, events and the innermost thoughts of characters in an omniscient manner. For the narrator to be revealed (I won’t spoil it for you) as Levinson did just didn’t add anything to the story and in fact totally took me outside the world of the novel.
Despite that quibble, I enjoyed the book. It has a great sense of place and time, and the familiar college town setting was used to great effect. Catherine was a sympathetic character without being flawless, and Antonia was a lovely foil for her as well. Overall, I think Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is a great novel, and I am excited to see what Levinson does in the future.