I had never heard of the author Edward Docx before and I didn’t know anything about the book Self Help when I received it in the mail from the publisher. I was in the mood to take a chance, something that happens now and then.
Self Help is a fairly long book. I want to describe it as sprawling because it sort of feels that way, but really it is a family drama with scenes in Petersburg, Russia, London, New York and Paris. Maria Glover, mother of twins Gabriel and Isabella who are now about 33, and wife of Nicholas Glover, is a Cold War Russian defector. When she left Russia she married Nicholas and they lived in Paris and London until Nicholas and Maria separated. Nicholas moved to Paris and Maria stayed in the London. Since the kids are plenty old enough to take care of themselves and the Cold War over, Maria moves back to Petersburg. Thus is the situation when the story opens. When Maria suddenly dies of cancer both Isabella and Gabriel are grief-stricken. And with the grief of their mother’s death they begin questioning their own lives and each ends up in a sort of identity crisis wondering who they are and what they are doing with their lives? Here is one of Isabella’s angst moments:
…when a parent passes away, the family demons do not retreat, but rise from their sarcophagi instead, and move out across the borders of the mind, swearing in their puppet regimes as they pass…. You think that your journey from birth to death is a journey away from the clutches of your parents, but in fact it’s the reverse….Because as a child, though you live by their hands, you understand not a single one of their decisions, not a single action, not a single response. But each year that passes, through adolescence and beyond, you begin to grasp more and more, you grow a little closer, start to see what they see, think what they think, realize what they have realized, believe what they have believed.
The twins are estranged from their father who, we find out through flashbacks, was verbally abusive and emotionally cold to them when they were children. But their father has information about their mother, secrets that she would never tell, and the twins have to decide whether or not they will try to make peace with their father in order to find out about their mother and ultimately the truth about themselves.
Into all of this comes Arkady. He lives in Petersburg and, we find out very early on, is the reason Maria went back to Russia. It turns out Arkady his her son, a baby she had as a result of a possible rape from a Party member back in the day. She left him at an orphanage as a baby when she defected. She tracks him down but he wants nothing to do with her. But Arkady’s friend and flatmate Henry, and expat from London, contacts Maria and convinces her to pull strings and pay tuition for Arkady to attend the Conservatory to study piano. Because, you see, Arkady is a brilliant pianist who had a full scholarship to the Conservatory before the economy collapsed and Perestroika was ushered in. Maria gladly does this, she feels guilty for abandoning Arkady. No one in the Glover family but Maria knows about Arkady. After she dies he is left without a means to pay for his schooling. And, in desperation, makes plans to contact Maria’s family.
I found Isabella and Gabriel somewhat annoying at times but I was quite interested in Arkady’s story. And Docx writes best when he is writing about music. There is a scene with Arkady playing jazz with his band in a nightclub and Docx describes the band and the playing in detail, the interplay between the people and the instruments and the genius of Arkady’s playing as his turn for a solo comes up. It is a fairly long passage and there is nothing I can pull out that would give you much of a hint about why it left me breathless at the end.
There are some twists and turns, and unexpected revelations. Docx’s writing is clear and unadorned. It is not a perfect story though; there are flaws. Sometimes I had difficulty feeling engaged with it, especially Gabriel. I wanted to slap him and tell him to get over himself at times. And sometimes I felt like something was missing. I don’t know what it is other than a vague and slightly unsatisfied feeling that I can’t really put my finger on. Overall though it’s a good book. I enjoyed it and feel as though the chance I took on a book and author I knew nothing about paid off.