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Book Review: <i>The Stray American</i> by Wendy Brandmark

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the cover of the book

Larry doesn’t know what he wants, but it wasn’t corporate law in Boston and it doesn’t seem like it’s lecturing in an American college in London either. He’s chasing his truth, and looking for it in all the wrong girls. But is a relationship what he needs to make himself whole?

The story

Larry Greenburg left his up and coming corporate law job for a teaching position in London, because corporate law was deeply depressing. He’s always been lucky in love previously, having left behind not only corporate law, but also Talia, his serious girlfriend with whom he was living. But Talia wanted to get too serious, and Larry wasn’t grown up enough to commit. When he gets to London, however, the girls don’t stick around. He can pick up easily enough, but nobody wants Larry to stay the night, much less for a second date. And Larry gets lonely.

Larry gets cautiously involved with some of the international students in his course, whose reasons for being in London are so different to his own. He hates the American students, who pay no attention to his classes and don’t care. When he gets invited to the new director of the campus’s house for dinner, he feels hopelessly out of place and leaves early with the girl he was paired with, Carla. Carla is one of the strangest people he’s ever met, but at least she doesn’t kick him out of bed straight away. He enters into a weird relationship with her, never feeling as though they are properly connecting or working out the mystery of her.

Around the same time, Larry gets invited by his annoying workmate Gershom Fish to join his group, the ‘un-Americans’ – a collection of homesick Americans who don’t like being associated with the current US government and stick together for company. This group of pseudo-radical weirdos doesn’t appeal to Larry at all, but he goes along a couple of times during a rough patch with Carla and falls a little bit for an alternative American girl named Devorah.

Can Larry settle down and find his happiness in the strange place, with one of these strange girls?

The style

This book is gorgeously written, and it’s a bit outside of standard pacing and narrative (at least for me, whose reviewing bread-and-butter is crime fiction). The Stray American is written in the third person limited, and the style perfectly suits Larry’s drifting, lost persona. He’s a tortured soul, Larry, disconnected from his own self and where he belongs –which is pretty much nowhere. His disconnection is masterfully analogised by his odd relationship with his religion – the way he pines for and is simultaneously repulsed by practicing Jewish people in London – and his odd relationships with both Carla and Devorah. The plot is very much Larry’s internal journey, punctuated by small events. As a writing device, this gives these events a level of disproportionate significance in the mind of the reader: Larry and Carla going to visit Carla’s parents in the country, Devorah and Larry going to holiday to the coast, every gathering of the un-Americans, Larry’s office at his school and the interactions he has there… all these events are firmly implanted in my mind. I can practically smell them. And while all that really happens in the story is Larry’s personal development (just a small snippet, of course, because in real life a person doesn’t develop all in one fell swoop), it is beautifully punctuated by these events.

Perhaps Brandmark’s writing is a bit too floral. As I said, all the way through, I felt saturated by the descriptions – London, Larry’s mental state, the way each character spoke – all of those things were like being punched. All the characters were written as though they were unique caricatures – it was masterfully done, because each character was almost too three-dimensional, but this just served to bring the hyper-real texture into the story. There wasn’t anything forced about these characters – they were very much themselves, and certainly not like other people. This of course includes Larry, but also Carla, Devorah, and Gershom. There were points in the story where I thought maybe we’ve taken this particular analogy far enough and I actually started to feel overwhelmed by the writing. On the other hand, there were some stand out lines that I wanted to write down and say yes, that is the perfect line. And that is RARE. Also, seeing as I do a bit of writing myself, I found it almost impossible to do my own writing while reading this story because it affected my style. Which I mean very much as a compliment.

Who is this book for?

Who knows? This is great contemporary literature. It’s worth a read, for anyone who’s perhaps felt disconnected in their twenties? It’s worth a read for the style alone. It’s a beautifully written novel in a world of averagely written novels. Do yourself a favour!

If you like this book, you would also like...

I’m not sure. I don’t know that I’ve read anything quite like this before – I’ve read attempts at this kind of thing before, but not done like this. Personal journey stories tend to either be tied to more of a plot, be a bit more fanciful, or be pale imitations of this. If I stumble across anything I’ll update the review.

In short

Title: The Stray American
Author: Wendy Brandmark
Publisher: Holland Park Press
ISBN: 978-1907320460
Year published: 2014
Pages: 240
Genre(s): Contemporary literature


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