The neverending saga of Orfeo, by Richard Powers (who hates me, I’m pretty sure) (by Jill)


Here is a brief rundown of what I accomplished on my weekend:

  1. Hike with parents
  2. Spent some time with my friend Letti and her daughter, catching up with things like Marvel movies, the antics of our respective animal herds (she has three dogs and four cats; I have one dog and six cats), and a mini-marathon of Pokemon. Surprisingly, that show is pretty entertaining.
  3. Today was a day off-not a day off in the sense that I went to a continuing education lecture on neurology. I brought Orfeo with me, expecting to beat my coworkers by at least a few minutes, but three of them were parking at the same time as me, so no reading time this morning.
  4. Dinner at a good restaurant in Old Town Sacramento for a friend’s birthday.
  5. Always laundry.

I did make some good progress on Orfeo, but not as much as I was hoping. I don’t want to complain about the book, I really don’t, because it’s really quite good. Powers’ skill is apparent, as is his knowledge of music. The novel is turning out to be, not so much a professor-on-the-lam adventure story as a character study of Peter Els. Peter is a good man, though he makes more than a few bad decisions, not the least of which is his decision to leave his family so he can go to New York to work on an experimental musical with his buddy from college. I cringed when I read that a couple days ago, and not just because I know from the present-day storyline that he and his wife Maddy are no longer together and that he is attempting to cobble together a relationship with his adult daughter Sara. To quote the text, “The way he’d remembered it, everything happened in that shared glance. On that downbeat, he left a wife who’d given him a decade of unearned patience, abandoned a daughter who wanted only to make things with him, and stepped out into free fall. For nothing, for music, for a chance to make a little noise in this world. A noise that no one needed to hear (211).” Sometimes people just don’t make a whole lot of sense. And yet, I find myself feeling sorry for Peter Els, for a self-absorbed man who puts his career ahead of his family without even truly understanding his actions until it’s much too late to change them. I don’t tend to feel sorry for people like this, be they real or fictional. So Powers wins this round. He made me like Peter Els.

One last thing. Orfeo is Italian for Orpheus, who is a character in Greek mythology. I primarily remember him for his trip to the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice, which is ultimately a failure because he accidentally looks back at her before they get out of the underworld. He was also apparently a musician and poet who could charm all living things with his music. I don’t know quite yet why this novel is named Orfeo. Is Peter Els supposed to be a modern Orpheus? Is his journey across the country supposed to be symbolic for Orpheus’ journey to the underworld to rescue his wife? I have no idea. There are a few operas based on Orpheus’ life as well. Perhaps the name of the novel is a reference to one of those. I mean, Peter Els does lose his wife, but she doesn’t die. She marries another man and moves to St. Louis. Not quite the same thing as being bitten in the heel by a poisonous viper, but some would say that living in the Midwest is akin to death, so there is that. I’m really not finding much in common with the two tales, though maybe more will be revealed as I go along.

This entry was posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Glimpses into Real Life, Reviews by Jill, Richard Powers. Bookmark the permalink.

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