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Book review: Growth begins with betrayal

DISOBEDIENCE. Jane Hamilton. Doubleday, 2000. 273 pages. $24.95.

Imagine for a moment that you are a bright teenager, a 17-year-old of diverse interests preparing to leave a close-knit family led by committed, loving, creative parents. You have a sister four years younger who masquerades as a boy in Civil War re-enactments.

“I knew when I was small that our worldly home was composed of the sun and the moon, the planets and the Shaws, the four of us holding together with a force that would not fail, would never cease,” Henry Shaw reveals early in Disobedience, Jane Hamilton's delicious fourth novel.

But one night, surfing the Internet, Henry the computer geek stumbles onto a file holding e-mails from someone named Liza38 to another someone named Rpoll. Reading, he quickly realizes that his mother, good old Beth, is carrying on with another man.

The world as he knows it shifts slightly on its axis, and from this skewed perspective readers follow the events of Henry's senior year in high school. But in fact, few of the narrator's own activities make it into this playful yet provocative tale. Most often we are given glimpses of Beth - she becomes Mrs. Shaw as Henry withdraws further and further from her - and the behavior that so disturbs her son.

It is nearly too much for the boy to manage as he follows the affair through Liza38's torrid notes to her Russian lover and then soul-baring accounts to her friend, Jane. Yet he is unable to quit reading, just as many become locked into a story that is at once horrible yet too compelling to ignore.

We watch as he sternly - if privately - questions his history-buff father's willingness to leave untouched what, to Henry, seems an unforgivable betrayal. We are able to barely taste the mother's confusion and passion through the mind of her son, who spends months in shock over the unwanted discovery of his favorite parent's clay feet.

Judgmental as most teenagers on the brink of independence can become, Henry lays claim a higher moral ground. Meanwhile, his own sexuality is flowering through his long-distance courtship with Lily, a friend from the family's former home in Vermont. And his friendship with a quirky and delightful classmate, Karen, blossoms as well.

Yet, driven by his obsession with the e-mail evidence of the romance, Henry remains somehow enshrouded, as if living within a tiny cell, failing to connect these major events in life outside with his own burgeoning personhood and sexuality.

Hamilton builds her characters from the inside out, mapping thoughts and emotions clearly, leaving physical description and behavior to take care of itself. The result is an intense, sometimes overwhelming sense of being inside someone's head and viewing his world from only that perspective.

The author's first teenage boy character, Walter, in her 1994 novel, The Short History of A Prince, told a far longer and more complex story that reached over years, yet ultimately left one with a rather static personality. But in Disobedience, with its limited scope, Hamilton develops Henry painstakingly, allowing us, finally to seem to grow up a bit with him.

The flow of the novel is a long, slow upward slope with more plateau at the front and a steeper, almost thrilling incline at the back. As events build to the climax, Henry's growth also accelerates. He/we begin to make the connections that bring motivations and needs into focus for the first time. The conclusion of this book is rich and heady, not so much for the actual events as for the realizations that, finally, we think, have reached Henry's maturing mind.

Fans of Hamilton's work won't want to miss this one, the most delicate and beautifully crafted novel of all. Those just discovering her could do worse than start with the latest book and work backward. Either way, it's a marvelous piece of fiction that rings very true to life.

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