Michelle Herman Recommends

“Brian Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening was published in 1998 and while it was by no means ignored–as I recall, it received glowing reviews and was nominated for some major awards–it’s a book hardly anyone seems to know about just seven years later. Thus I am always giving people copies of it as gifts, and everyone I’ve given it to (a group that includes other writers and artists as well as lots of civilians, including both of my parents–and my father never reads “this sort of book,” i.e. “literary fiction,” unless it’s one I’ve written) has fallen in love with it.

It’s the kind of book you do fall in love with, a book that is not only written gorgeously but is full of truths–that is, actual wisdom–and the main characters (Schiller, an obscure novelist/intellectual; Heather, the bookish, brazen girl who half-falls in love with him as she sets about trying to write about him; and the Schiller’s daughter, Ariel, an ex-dancer turned aerobics teacher) are so lovingly and brilliantly drawn it is almost unbearably sad to come to the end of the book.

The character Heather remembers that her life was changed when at 16 she discovered Schiller’s first novel, Tenderness: “It was as if Schiller had explained her life to her more sympathetically than she’d been able to explain it to herself.” That’s exactly how I felt reading Starting Out in the Evening, a novel that does something that hardly any contemporary novel (and for that matter hardly any contemporary art) troubles to do: it looks at the goodness in–and of–life. This is not to say that it is sentimental, or “soft.” In fact Starting Out in the Evening is full of in-passing, apparently throw-away observations (“You desire the woman who intimidates the woman you desire,” says one character) that are startling in their shrewdness. A novel that is this smart and this generous, with characters who feel entirely real, is so rare that I have never understood why it isn’t more generally acknowledged as one of the best novels of our time.”

Michelle Herman is the author of the short novel Dog and the memoir The Middle of Everything.