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A Novel

Written by George HagenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by George Hagen



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On Sale: June 15, 2004
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-376-3
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Meet the Laments—the affably dysfunctional globetrotting family at the center of George Hagen’s exuberant debut novel.

Howard is an engineer who dreams of irrigating the Sahara and lives by the motto “Laments move!” His wife Julia is a fiery spirit who must balance her husband’s oddly peripatetic nature with unexpected aspirations of her own. And Will is the “waif with a paper-thin heart” who is given to Howard and Julia in return for their own child who has been lost in a bizarre maternity ward mishap. As Will makes his way from infancy to manhood in a family that careens from continent to continent, one wonders where the Laments will ever belong.

In Bahrain, Howard takes a job with an oil company and young Will makes his first friend. But in short order he is wrenched off to another land, his mother’s complicated friendship with the American siren Trixie Howitzer causing the family to bolt. In Northern Rhodesia, during its last days as a white colony, the twin enfants terribles Marcus and Julius are born, and Will falls for the gardener’s daughter, a girl so vain that she admires her image in the lid of a biscuit tin. But soon the family’s life is upturned again, thie time by their neighbor Major Buck Quinn, with his suburban tirades against black self-rule. Envisioning a more civilized life on “the sceptered isle,” the Laments board an ocean liner bound for England. Alas, poor Will is greeted by the tribal ferocity of his schoolmates and a society fixated on the Blitz. No sooner has he succumbed to British pop culture in the guise of mop-top Sally Byrd and her stacks of 45s, than the Laments uproot themselves once again, and it’s off to New Jersey, where life deals crisis and opportunity in equal measure.

Undeniably eccentric, the Laments are also universal. Every family moves on in life. Children grow up, things are left behind; there is always something to lament. Through the Lament’s restlessness, responses to adversity, and especially their unwieldy love for one another, George Hagen gives us a portrait of every family that is funny, tragic, and improbably true.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Unnamed

Perhaps the Lament baby knew that his parents couldn’t name him. Moments after birth he displayed a cryptic smile, an ear-to-ear gape at the fuss displayed over his hospital crib as relatives argued over his Christian name. His mother, Julia Lament, particularly felt the burden. A child’s name is his portal to the world. It had to be right.

“If people were named at the end of their lives, we wouldn’t have mistakes like selfish children named Charity, and timid ones named Leo!” she declared.

Julia’s namesake was a monstrous chieftain of a great-grandfather named Julius, a surly copper magnate of Johannesburg, South Africa, married three times, arrested for slowly poisoning his last wife through nightly glasses of milk dosed with arsenic. Even after his incarceration, the Clare family insisted on naming their children after him in a desperate attempt to win his favor and thereby keep the copper mines in the family. Hence: four Julias, two Juliuses, a couple of Julians, several Juliannas, and a particularly nasty lapdog named Ju Ju.

Spitefully, Uncle Julius left his fortune to a nurse in the prison hospital. Her name was Ida Wicks, and she was neither compassionate nor attentive; in fact, she belittled her patients’ maladies in contrast to her own, which included poor circulation, migraines, lumbago, shingles, bunions, and tinnitus. Nevertheless, Uncle Julius appreciated seeing a woman every morning during his last days on earth, and Nurse Wicks survived her ills long enough to spend his money—a task that kept her cold heart beating a few hours beyond her one hundredth birthday.

Howard Lament, loving husband to Julia and father to the nameless baby, felt a sense of urgency about giving the child a name, even if it was the wrong one. An efficient man, with a broad forehead, a waxen droop of a nose, and a swath of copper hair that curled into a question mark between his temples, Howard abhorred indecision.

“I’ll give him my name—that’ll do,” he said. “After all, it’s tradition!”

Julia had never been a strong voice for tradition. She had learned a thing or two from Uncle Julius, not to mention having been brought up in the dusty tradition of the girls’ boarding school.

“Tradition.” She sniffed. “What has tradition ever done for anybody?”

“Oh,” sighed her husband, “darling, please don’t go on about that school again.”

Abbey Gate School for Girls was a Gothic eyesore of immense timbers, roofed with gray slate and thick, bulbous chimneys. The absurdly slender windows seemed designed primarily for defense, a hint of the architect’s conviction that modern girls needed to be protected from all manner of assault. Guided by sparse incandescent lighting down dark-paneled corridors, the girls walked in single file with silent footsteps. Learning at Abbey Gate was a regrettable chore requiring swift, accurate replies and a minimum of opinion.

Julia, helplessly opinionated and impulsive, did not fit in. Her raven-blue hair was a tangled mesh that fought the comb and brush, and, when braided, never hung properly like the other girls’. Though her peers took notes with unquestioning faith, Julia granted no teacher that privilege. Not a lesson passed in which her hand didn’t rise in challenge, flicking her braid back and forth like a cat’s subversive tail.

Julia’s nemesis was the head of classics at Abbey Gate. Mrs. Ur-quhart had the face of a spinster—a myopic squint, thin, ungenerous lips, and copious facial hair. Nevertheless, her husband could be found sleeping at all the important school functions. He was a taxidermist with thickly whorled spectacles and a waist that began at his armpits.

Mrs. Urquhart taught Shakespeare as a series of morality lessons—chiefly about the institution of marriage. “Girills,” she screeched in her Glaswegian burr, “girills, Lady Macbeth drove her husband to a bloodthirsty end, proving, once again, that the criticisms of a wife are best kept to herself lest her husband take them to heart and slaughter his way to the throne. . . .”

In a flash, the hand of Miss Julia Clare would shoot up, entwined by the recalcitrant braid, intent on an urgent and passionate rebuttal. The scholarly badger, who hated contradiction and despised the Socratic method, would cast a blind eye to the twitching braid until her pupil’s gasps became too insistent to ignore.

“What is it, Miss Clare?”

“Perhaps, Mrs. Urquhart, Lady Macbeth was simply fed up with listening to her husband complain about his station in life!”

“I cannae hear yuh, Miss Clare, speak louder next time.” Mrs. Urquhart smiled, as if that settled the matter.

“Consider Macbeth, Mrs. Urquhart,” the girl persisted. “No backbone, no confidence, believing a gaggle of old biddies stirring a cauldron. I mean, what a dope of a Scotsman!”

A hush of delight spread across the classroom as the girls watched their mentoress blanch; not one day passed that she didn’t wear the official green-and-black tartan of the Urquharts (didn’t she play the bagpipes for the school as a special treat on Robert Burns’s birthday?). Her great badgerly whiskers rose in outrage; she removed her misty tortoiseshell glasses and drew up her massive Caledonian breast.

“Ere yuh presuming to divine Shakespeare’s truh intention, four hundred years after his death, Miss Clare?”

Even as she trembled before this woman, there was in Julia Clare a stubborn refusal to be intimidated by anyone. Softly, she replied, “No more than you are, Mrs. Urquhart.”

Now the gnarled, nicotine-stained fingers of her teacher, clutching a yellowed and crusty handkerchief, stabbed the air in the direction of the door.

“Get oot of mah class!”

“With pleasure, Mrs. Urquhart.”

Julia Clare took the familiar route to the Office of the Head-mistress, sitting in penitence on a hard oaken bench in the foyer—punishment far worse, in fact, than any time spent with the headmistress. Mrs. Grace Bunsen, a woman unrelated to the inventor of the famous burner yet possessed of a bright flame of hair (the color of Double Gloucester cheese, curiously similar to the hair of Julia’s future husband), by virtue of her mercy reinforced Julia’s belief that a Christian name is a window into one’s character.

Said Grace, “Julia, when will you realize that some opinions, however inspired, are best kept to yourself?”

“Forgive me, Mrs. Bunsen, but every word out of Mrs. Urquhart’s mouth is insulting to women!”

With a dignified frown, Grace Bunsen would ask for the particulars—which produced considerable mirth when she conveyed them to the faculty. Julia was unaware of her fame in the teachers’ lounge; its shabby armchairs and unemptied ashtrays were the hub for Julia stories while Mrs. Urquhart nursed one of her pungent Malayan cigars beneath a cedar tree on the school grounds, spitting tobacco-stained saliva at the squirrels.

“but what shall we name our son?” asked Howard as Julia stared at the ceiling from her hospital bed.

“I’m busy thinking,” replied Julia, though she was really thinking of Beatrice. Parenthood has, as one of its side effects, the quality of recasting all childhood experience.

It was Mrs. Urquhart’s butchery of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing that finally dissolved Julia’s veil of respect. Beatrice was Julia’s favorite character, sharp-spoken, skeptical of love, but, when stoked, possessed of a fiery passion; most of all Julia loved Beatrice’s tongue, for she was a character armed with quick and witty retorts, a woman who always knew what to say.

It wasn’t as though Mrs. Bunsen hadn’t warned Julia ahead of time.

“Julia, you’re certainly entitled to disagree with her, but do try to express it without insulting her heritage.”

“She provokes me!”

“She’s your teacher, Julia. Further arguments could lead to your expulsion.”

The last thing Julia wanted was to disturb the volatile relationship between her parents. Her father, Adam Clare, a bureaucrat at the Electricity Supply Commission in Johannesburg, had never made enough money to please his wife, and couldn’t wait for the weekends to go hunting or fishing. Her mother, aptly named Rose, was strikingly beautiful, prickly to the touch, a woman who had criticism for everyone, especially her daughter. The only thing worse than the disharmony at home was the prospect of being sent home to be the source of it.

In the next month, Julia behaved herself while Mrs. Urquhart blamed Desdemona for Othello’s bad end and Juliet for tempting Romeo. Julia, to her credit, resisted the thrashing Mrs. Urquhart gave her beloved Beatrice until almost the very end. She remembered the warnings of her headmistress, and perhaps in the disapproval of Mrs. Urquhart she heard a more primal voice, the voice of Rose, who found her daughter’s presence so unsatisfactory that she had bundled her off to boarding school at the age of seven. The classics teacher observed her young foe’s reticence—hands buried under her knees, mouth zipped shut—so when it seemed clear that her gadfly wouldn’t sting, she ended her lecture with this final remark: “You’ll notice how often Beatrice seeks the last word in any scene—clearly an insecure and weak young woman.”

A weak woman? Beatrice?

The girls turned for the volley. Julia wiped the beads of sweat along her upper lip—another quality her mother disliked. “She’s assuredly your child, Adam. See how she sweats from the most masculine parts of her body!”

Mrs. Urquhart folded her arms—gauntlet dropped. Waiting. Julia bit her lip so hard she could feel the blood on her tongue; her mind was fixed on Mrs. Bunsen’s warning. Still, the faces of the girls were trained on her while the hirsute harpy gloated in triumph.

Julia then, without realizing it, fixed one eye on the puckered face of her teacher and raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“Madam, if what you say about Shakespeare reflects life, then all men are the dupes of women, and all women are the mistresses of their destruction. What would Mr. Urquhart say to that, I wonder?”

Heads were lowered to desks, as if to avoid the return fire from this verbal torpedo.

Mrs. Urquhart squinted, regarding the mock innocence of her assailant with a bobbing craw.

“Miss Clare—you’ll nae sit in my class e’er again!” she sputtered.

Julia was found by her father at the train station, in her uniform, a blue-and-gray tartan, a wide straw hat, and white kneesocks. Perched on a large trunk, she cradled her dog-eared copy of Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare.

“Well, missy,” he said. “What a mess we’re in now.”

He was a striking man, tall, with blue-black hair cropped short, thick eyebrows, and strong cheekbones. She liked to imagine a more savage version of him slaughtering Hadrian’s legions in the heather.

“I’m so sorry, Papa,” she replied.

He deflected her apology with a soft shrug.

“How’s Mummy? Tell me all the news. Do I look taller?”

Her father hesitated.

“Yes, missy, I think you might be as tall as your mother.”

“You must measure us together. Where is she?”

Adam Clare dug into his jacket pockets, nervously looking for his pipe, then, sighing, he dropped his shoulders and looked at Julia with an abashed smile.

“The thing is, missy, your mother and I are divorced.”

The sun broke through the fever trees, and Julia tried to shield the harsh light from her eyes with both hands.

“What?” she said, hoping she had misheard, and yet knowing she hadn’t.

“Our marriage is over.”

“When?”

“Oh, last Christmas, actually.” Her father swallowed. “We were going to tell you this next summer, I suppose, but . . . well, here you are.”

Here she was. A loose end to the marriage. An attached string somebody had forgotten to clip.

“What will I do?” she asked.

“Well, luckily they’ve accepted you at Saint Mary’s.” He smiled. “You’ll continue your studies, grow up, and have a wonderful life.”

Julia was sure that Beatrice would have summoned the right riposte, but she couldn’t imagine what it was. By the time her outrage found words, her father was busy negotiating with a porter for the shipment of her trunk to the new school. Then he offered her an ice cream and Julia heard herself thanking him for the treat through hot tears.

“It just doesn’t seem right to name a child after oneself,” Julia told Howard as she looked at her new baby boy, “when he may not feel kindly toward you later in life.”

“What could he possibly have against me? I’m certainly not going to make my father’s mistakes.” Howard laughed.

Julia didn’t answer. She recalled her parents making only one mistake—marrying each other.

Though the Lament baby’s eyes were closed, the power of his smile was astounding. If ever a child possessed a confident spirit, this one excelled in that regard. No parent could doubt that this baby, in spite of his lack of a name, was destined for a happy life.


From the Hardcover edition.
George Hagen

About George Hagen

George Hagen - The Laments

GEORGE HAGEN is the author of two novels for adults. The Laments--a Washington Post bestseller and recipient of the William Saroyan International Prize for writing--has been compared to the work of John Irving and Ann Tyler and described by Publishers Weekly as "a funny, touching novel about the meaning of family." Tom Bedlam was called "a Victorian three-decker novel [that] shines with contemporary clarity and moves at the speed of 'The Sopranos'" by the Los Angeles Times. Hagen had lived on three continents by the time he was twelve. The father of three children, he now lives in Brooklyn. This is his first book for kids. For more information, visit georgehagen.com.

Praise

Praise

The Laments is a fine novel, about family, migration, identity, and the struggle to find and hold on to it. It is also hugely entertaining and very, very funny.”
—Roddy Doyle, author of The Barrytown Trilogy

“A vital international journey through the vicissitudes of family life. This story, centering on the timeless theme of a child swapped at birth, is immensely readable, funny, and touching—a complete joy.”
—Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle

“George Hagen’s highly entertaining debut novel features an irresistibly headstrong family, a global sweep, and not only a sense of loss and displacement that’s perfectly in tune with the world we live in but also a full measure of resilient humanity.”
—Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook



From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. “No one could doubt that this baby, in spite of his lack of a name, was destined for a happy life.” How does the Lament family’s vision of happiness change as they wander from country to country?

2. Will has an intense investment in the unity of his parents as a baby, linking his mother’s dress and his father’s belt loop with his finger. How does this investment play itself out to the novel’s end? What is the significance of his comment to Rose at the Statue of Liberty when he says, “I can’t do it forever?”

3. What is the significance of roses in the novel? For instance, when the Midnight Chinaman first appears, he has roses embroidered on his silk pajamas. What does his presence portend?

4. What causes Howard’s depression? Is his ambition at fault? Is Julia responsible? Or is his wanderlust the problem?

5. Will reaches out to many girls in the novel. Are Ruth, Sally, Marina and Dawn more like sisters than crushes? What about Minna?

6. What is the significance, if any, of Howard’s attempt to design an artificial heart?

7. On their ocean trip to England, Howard worries that Will needs to be tougher to adapt to England. Does Howard also need to be tougher in order to adapt?

8. Julia finds the moves from country to country more and more difficult. How do her rationalizations for moving change? Do they reflect a fundamental shift in the terms of her marriage with Howard?

9. Will is seduced by British pop culture as he witnesses it in Sally’s bedroom, with pop stars plastered all over the walls and door. Who in the Lament family is seduced by American culture, and how?

10. Britain is depicted as a nation that cannot ‘get over’ its role in World War II. Are the Americans that the Laments encounter reconciled with their past?

11. Trixie Howitzer’s marriage to Chip is rather a cynical arrangement, yet Julia is fascinated by Trixie while Howard is repelled. Why is this? What, if anything, does Julia have in common with Trixie?

12. When the Laments arrive in America, they are directed by several characters to make friends with the Himmels, who are German immigrants. How does the Himmel family’s integration into American culture compare to the Laments’?

13. Roy Biddle remarks to Will that “everyone is a racist.” How is racism depicted in the different cultures the Laments encounter? Is Will a racist? Why, or why not? Is that important to the novel?

14. The Laments place tremendous faith in what the future will bring. But Hagen describes a number of characters who revere the past: Mrs. Pritchard, for example, and Dr. Underberg, who prefers the “thousands of years of experience” that Africans have in producing happy babies to modern child rearing. How is the past pitted against the future in this novel?

15. What might have happened if the Laments’ natural born son had lived? Would they have traveled? What of Howard’s ambition and Julia’s frustration with her domesticity? Would they have been destined for a happy life?

16. Would you consider the Laments to be driven to travel by their political principles? Why do they leave Africa? Is there a contrast between the America they anticipate, and the one they find as revealed by the attitudes of their American neighbors?


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