Charlotte Bacon

"Split Estate"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAY 9, 2008)

"But then Laura had jumped, and the one part of the city about which he’d claimed intimate knowledge proved to be fatally unfamiliar. He never said “after Laura died”: “jump” was the verb his mind selected, as if the soft exhalation of “died” were too tranquil or passive. “Jump” was all decisive, smashing action."

The phrase Split Estate—which is also the title of Charlotte Bacon's latest book—refers to a legal term by which the owners of a plot of land might not necessarily own the mining rights to it. In Bacon's new novel, the term could also be applied to its protagonist, Arthur King, whose loyalties often overlap between two vastly different landscapes—the bleak Wyoming of his childhood and urban New York City where he works and is most at ease.

The only child of a strong-willed independent middle-school teacher, Lucy King, Arthur grows up in small town Callendar, Wyoming forever knowing that he is disappointing his father in some essential way. He doesn't want to learn all the standard cowboy tricks, drive a big truck, or tend to a big ranch the way his father wants him to. With some help from his mother, Arthur plans to break away using college as an escape route. As it turns out, just before his acceptance to Harvard, his father Sean is killed in a freak accident and Arthur leaves anyway to carve out a life for himself on the East Coast.

Eventually Arthur marries, has two children—Cam and Celia—and is a successful attorney in New York city. As the book opens however, we learn that Laura, Arthur's wife, has recently committed suicide, choosing to jump from their city apartment. Suddenly single, Arthur must now raise two teenage kids and come to terms with their grief and his. It was “not just a death..” Bacon writes, “but a suicide, the kind of ending that puts a family into contact with the darkest sort of wonder, the most intense variety of rage, the harshest of abandonments.”

Arthur decides he needs to leave New York and return to his native Wyoming at least for a few months to shake off the grief his family is plunged in. His mother, Lucy, tentatively welcomes them home and the three try to restart life in a totally new place. During the summer, Cam falls in love with Amber Barlow, a tattooed teenager who already has a steady out-of-town boyfriend; Arthur takes up a lawyer's job handling estate law for a local law firm while Celia tries to get her bearings around town through a friendship with a local ranch hand called Carson.

Bacon wonderfully portrays the raw emotions stirred up by grief and the harshness of the landscape. In fact, Bacon does such a brilliant job portraying the Wyoming countryside that its vibrancy almost becomes a character unto itself in the book. ”Good Christ, this country could make you mournful. If you looked only at its printed history, the only picture that arose was of bleakness, bleakness, and more bleakness, with unattractive racial skirmishing and environmental degradation thrown in...,” Bacon writes, “What those accounts left out was sky, sky, and more sky, animals, high mountains, and air spun through with winter light. It left out friends who would drive eighty miles to check on you after a blizzard. You had to live with both sides, the excellence and the ugliness mixed, and be willing to be suspended in the contradiction, making your way through it one slow, conscious step at a time.”

As time moves on, the Kings try to understand their loss, and the novel moves rather slowly. Even the halting pace doesn't make the novel boring however. Bacon's focus on the Kings' recovery makes for beautiful reading. “That was where Arthur was living right now, square in the center of his grief,” Bacon writes, “People forgot you six months in. The rip in their day your sadness opened had closed for them long since, just when you were discovering its exact outline."

As we leave the Kings, they are still trying to figure out their place in the world after taking a few stumbles. The ending brings no easy resolutions, yet the reader leaves with a tinge of hope. “Everyone liked to believe that the natural world was infinitely forgiving, indefinitely capable of regeneration,” Bacon writes. You hope that this holds equally truly of even the rugged Wyoming landscape—that it will embrace the Kings, weaknesses and all—and bring them a certain level of peace, one that they desperately need and miss.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews

Read an excerpt from Split Estate at the publisher's site

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About the Author:

Charlotte BaconCharlotte Bacon graduated cum laude from Harvard University and recieved a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University. She taught English and Creative Writing for a number of years at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. She was a Guggenheim recipient in 2001.

She currently lives in Bali with her husband and two children. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014