I have read both of these and I do have a decided favorite. One of the books is a sweeping epic, spanning multiple decades and generations. The other is an intimate portrait of two marriages which, incidentally, also spans a couple generations. The sweeping epic is about the world, class, nationality, and urgent matters of national security and individual rights. The intimate portrait is about class, regionalism, and urgent matters of interpersonal relationships.
I love close examinations of individual lives or moments in time. Nabokov and Woolf, two of my favorite authors, are masters (in two unique ways) of that approach to literature. Of course, I also enjoy Tolstoy and Dos Passos each of whose scope is much broader. But my first love is the intimate. Russo should have a leg up here, but my pick was Shamsie.
Burnt Shadows, as I pointed out in my review, has stunning passages that cut to the heart of romance, class-based tensions, and family squabbles. Shamsie gives little ground, I think, to Russo on insights into people and their interactions. Basically, I think she and Russo take on very similar issues, including the effect the past and parents have on the present and children. Shamsie is more ambitious and, I think, more successful.
Russo only prevails on humor, but his humor did not mesh with mine nearly so well as it did with others. Perhaps it is my distance from academe, my relative unfamiliarity with summering on the Cape, or my relative (to Russo’s) youth. Maybe it is that it was yet one more book that involves an awkward disposal-of-ashes scene. Whatever the case, there was little that excited me about this book. Russo is definitely a talented craftsman. I have no doubt he produced precisely the book he wanted. But in the end, I would as soon have tried something else.
There are passages from Shamsie, however, that I will happily take with me and treasure.
…or Spectacles Bridge, where they had been standing, looking into the water, when a small silver fish leapt out of Konrad’s reflected chest and dived into her reflection and she said, “Oh,” and stepped back, almost losing her balance, so he had to put his arm around her waist to steady her.
Burnt Shadows wins my vote because of how much it accomplishes in the pursuit of grand ambition, how beautifully close moments are rendered as history swirls around the characters. That Old Cape Magic is an enjoyable read, Burnt Shadows is a delectable one.
[My contrarian view finally prevails: Burnt Shadows is declared a Round 1 winner by Nic Brown. No one is perfect in the TOB 2010 Contest, but the three formerly perfects maintain their one point lead over the field.]