Monday, February 18, 2013

Other Men's Daughters by Richard Stern

The author Richard G. Stern died last month. There were several glowing obituaries, including the one in The New York Times.  One of his students at the University of Chicago was Philip Roth, who credited Stern with the encouragement to turn his New Jersey upbringing into literature, starting with Goodbye, Columbus. Stern had many admirers whose work is much better known than his, including Roth, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and Flannery O'Connor.

I had never read him, but since I never read Patrick O'Brian until I read his obit back last century, I decided my lack of knowledge was no excuse and I picked up one of his novels.

Other Men's Daughters is the story of a middle-aged biology professor who gets involved with a student at Harvard, though he meets her in his capacity as a doctor. it was published in 1973. Looking at Stern's obit, we see he is survived by his wife who got her degrees in 1972 and 1975 and four children from his first marriage. Stern's hero Robert Merriwether also has four children in his first marriage. Clearly, some of the impetus for the novel comes from real life, though names, places, occupations and who knows what else were changed.

I got the novel out of the library. According to a card in a sleeve in its front cover, I was the first person to check it out since 1978. It was in hard cover and had this cover photograph. Going to Google to find an online copy of this, I found several other cover illustrations for the book, ranging from something that looks like a bad romance novel to a cropped photo you would expect wrapped around a Jim Thompson book, one with at least two or three criminal acts driving the plot.

Sometimes novelists remain obscure because publishers are clods.

In any case, I liked Other Men's Daughters. Drawing on my experience as a child of a divorce from the early seventies, there is a lot of honesty and real feeling in the book. He is a strong researcher and does have an ear for humor when he wants to use it.

I don't expect I will now become hooked like I am on books featuring Aubrey and Maturin. For all his strengths as a writer, Stern did not produce a character as funny as Preserved Killick or compelling as Barrett Bonden, two minor but vital characters in Patrick O'Brian's world I love so dearly to visit.

I recommend reading Stern if you have not done so already. Though his obituary gave his middle initial, the books I have found of his do not. His lack of popularity is a mystery, not unlike the obscurity of a rock band like Big Star, Any Trouble or Mott the Hoople.

Sorry, that sounds like the comment of an aging hipster. Old habits are hard to break.

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