London: At the start of Kate Christensen`s sharp, perceptive novel, poet Harry Quirk has been thrown out of his apartment in The Astral in the northern Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint by his wife, Luz, who suspects he`s having an affair.
He`s not, but Luz has found a number of seemingly incriminating poems that fuel her suspicions, and Harry can say nothing to convince her otherwise. Harry`s poetry is at best old-fashioned, favoring traditional meter and rhyme schemes, and at worst, so hopelessly out-of-date that it cannot even be considered retro-hip. It`s a crafty move on Christensen`s part to have these poems, which Luz destroys, be the catalyst for Harry to rebuild his life.
And as Harry reflects on his marriage`s trajectory, deconstructing its fabric to find out what went wrong and how to fix it, he`s also endeavoring to engage meaningfully with his grown children. Karina is a levelheaded freegan (or trash-bin diver, in simplistic terms) living in Crown Heights; Hector has recently joined up with a commune that Harry and Karina suspect is really a religious cult. And in another sly twist, it`s only when Harry seeks help for Hector that he`s provided fresh insights that prompt him to completely reassess his relationship with Luz.
As an introspective look at what makes a marriage work, and what doesn`t — Harry`s interactions with his married friends provide a number of perspectives on this topic — Christensen`s "The Astral" is provoking and at times profoundly moving. But it also succeeds in its fond descriptions of a neighborhood virtually unknown outside of New York (and all too often written off within it), an area that even in its perhaps inevitable gentrification persists in holding on to its gritty "Old World" ways. So-called hipster interlopers live amid Polish immigrants and old-timers, and Christensen captures it all magnificently, down to the decaying majesty of the once-grand building honored in her title.