Oprah Wnfrey, have I got a novel for you. It’s been over two months since the announcement of your last book-club selection, Mary McGarry Morris’ Songs in Ordinary Time, and readers who have finished early and are now facing summer’s dog days without a fresh recommendation from you couldn’t do better than to pick up Alice Hoffman’s 12th novel. Here on Earth is Oprah lit at its finest, and I mean that as very high praise. For 20 years now, Hoffman has been crafting stories that dance across the balance beam between so-called serious literature and pop fiction with unerring grace. Her books unfold artfully without feeling fussed over or writing-workshopped to death; her characters are idiosyncratic but emotionally immediate; her use of language is never fetishistic, just effortlessly right.
Most impressively, Hoffman can turn a jumble sale of second-hand ingredients into something new and heartfelt. Here on Earth begins as the story of a 40ish woman returning to her New England hometown, with sullen teenage daughter in tow, to attend a funeral, sort through old feelings, and perhaps rekindle a forbidden affair with the brooding loner who was raised as her brother, and it ends as something far grimmer and more complicated. In a scant 300 pages, Hoffman manages to interweave the perspectives of a dozen characters; the literary conventions of romance novels, mysteries, and (an apparent favorite of hers) fairy tales; an exploration of abuse, familial love, and female identity that binds it to the Oprah canon; a bare hint of magic; and a complicated, highly sexual update of Wuthering Heights. Even the family dog turns out to be a pretty interesting character.
There’s not much more to say about Here on Earth’s plot; summarizing Hoffman’s narratives makes them sound creepily sentimental (tell people that her 1994 Second Nature portrays the romance between a woman and a wolf man and watch their eyes roll) and shortchanges her greatest gift, which is her ability to conceal the overall design and thrust of her tales until the last page. Hoffman’s characters, male and female, tend to be defined by the restless, lonely ache of what’s missing in their lives, which becomes clear only when they fill the void with something either unexpectedly right or horribly wrong. Along the way, Hoffman seems to wriggle into their skin, breathe their air, and think their thoughts — in Here on Earth, she plumbs the interior lives of, among others, a drunken recluse, a heartsick teenage boy, an angry daughter, a near madman, a cuckolded husband, and three wounded women, with such modesty and skill that she seems to witness rather than invent their lives.
One more thing, Oprah: Here on Earth isn’t just worth reading; it’s worth arguing about. In the book’s last hundred pages, Hoffman’s characters plunge into a darkness that fans will argue has been carefully foreshadowed and detractors will call manipulative and melodramatic. I’d say it’s both, but it works nonetheless (remember, Wuthering Heights wasn’t exactly a joyride). As for you, I hope you’ll give it a look and do what you do best: Discuss. A-