West's failure to follow through in one portion of his book, Dream of the Great Blue, lessens its overall impact, though it doesn't cripple the piece completely. In this one-week window into two separate relationships, West paints a contemplative and almost Socratic picture about the nature of human existence and, in the case of Emma, a life not quite lived.
Using finely detailed strokes dipped in day-to-day life in lieu of broad plotlines, West is a master of metaphor--neither waxing too sentimental nor blatantly cramming his lessons into his text. Rather, like a Shakespearean character, he uses both art and nature--the Pacific Ocean and the Sonoran Desert--as the mirrors with which to reflect his philosophical message.
"Perfection doesn't exist," Emma, a discontented housewife and part-time art dealer nearing 40, comes to understand, "and you can't make it seem like it does--no matter how expertly you create the illusion."
But West, like any fallible human, gets distracted by the unobtainable and ends up flattening Emma and her lover, the young painter Alex, into creatures that are better suited for celluloid than the canvases of Van Gogh.
With much of the book taking place from a Thursday to the following Wednesday, each chapter alternates between the stories of Emma and Alex, whose tryst begins outside of Tucson, and Jack and Maggie, a husband and wife nearing their 60s who contemplate their own lives and their life together during a trip to the California coast. West artistically conveys how meaning, and a touch of regret, is to be found within life's daily details--in thoughts, in meals, in art and in one another.
But examining one's life is not easy. For Jack and Maggie, there is a hovering mortality, though each handles growing old a little differently. Early in the book, West illustrates this with grace, ruminating with his characters as they examine seashells in a tourist shop.
Maggie, at times endearingly shrill, finds hope in the shells she admires but never buys. "Touching them," West writes, "she feels her connection to a source infinitely older than herself. ... She could spend hours looking--unreasonably, they give her such a feeling of optimism."
On the other hand, Jack, a painter whose greatness is hindered by a too-consuming sex drive, is more troubled by time: Unlike "Maggie's optimism, he gets a strange commingled sense of nostalgia and foreboding that makes him uncomfortable. ... Time slips by so quickly that he feels himself thrown forward into some distant future. ... Or time drifts so slowly that he feels he's waiting for something, though he doesn't know what it is."
But it's not just mortality that rears its head toward the twilight years, West points out. Questions about one's path in life and one's loves also remain. Maggie and Jack still find themselves wondering what love is and deciding whether they love each other after so many decades.
That we must confront these issues time and again, no matter how old or how wise we grow, is a harsh reality depicted in Dream of the Great Blue. It makes West's book an uncomfortable read--and a worthwhile one.
At a different stage, Emma's plight is the saddest of the four. Traveling to the desert, she finds she has traded an examined life for one that serves an overbearing husband, two children and a mother who repeatedly reminds her of the sacrifices women must make.
The desert, art and Alex reignite human drives Emma has long ignored, and just in time, she's jostled from her barren path. West captures the heat of the desert as both the illicit affair and Emma's rebirth burgeon, but, as if tired of lingering in reality himself, he discards what could be an instructive picture of regeneration for a sloppy imitation cast in broad strokes.
Forget the phoenix emerging from the fire--apparently, rebirth is a piece of cake. Life-long love is discovered between Alex and Emma, attractive beings still taut and lithe, in a matter of days. And there's little deliberation or anguish when Emma decides to leave her two-decade marriage. Everyone--friends, husband and children included--easily accepts the infidelity and disruption in their lives.
West dumps his day-to-day description, jumping months ahead and redrawing Alex as a knight in shining armor and Emma as a woman who never doubts the depth of his love.
Insight and imperfect beauty may be found in Dream of the Great Blue, when West sticks to the "more subtle and insidious routine" of daily living.
As Jack and Maggie illustrate, there's opportunity to know thyself even in "the comfort of the familiar."