The World to Come by Dara Horn

I picked up The World to Come by Dara Horn when it was on sale for $1.99 for the Kindle. It seems like the kind of book I would like. Here is how Amazon’s review describes it:

The World to ComeFollowing in the footsteps of her breakout debut In the Image, Dara Horn’s second novel, The World to Come, is an intoxicating combination of mystery, spirituality, redemption, piety, and passion. Using a real-life art heist as her starting point, Horn traces the life and times of several characters, including Russian-born artist Marc Chagall, the New Jersey-based Ziskind family, and the “already-weres” and “not-yets” who roam an eternal world that exists outside the boundaries of life on earth.

History, faith, mystery, and the other-worldly? Yes, that is something I need to check out.

I found it to be both fascinating and frustrating. I really enjoyed the multilayered stories that make up the majority of the book. Horn creates some great characters, weaves in history, art, literature, philosophy and religion for a complex and mystical brew. But then at the end she adds on this awkward and completely off-putting, for me, section detailing what happens before babies are born. Like some other reviewers, this really kind ruined it for me. There are some powerful stories and some great writing but the attempt to bring it all together failed to a degree that undermines much of what preceded.

The publisher’s blurb gives a little more details on the rather convoluted plot:

A million-dollar Chagall is stolen from a museum during a singles’ cocktail hour. The unlikely thief, former child prodigy Benjamin Ziskind, is convinced that the painting once hung in his parents’ living room. This work of art opens a door through which we discover his family’s startling history—from an orphanage in Soviet Russia where Chagall taught to suburban New Jersey and the jungles of Vietnam.

Horn does an excellent job of weaving a great many threads together and keeping it moving somehow. What sustains it are the powerful stories of the families she highlights. She captures the struggle for life and the never-ending quest to make sense of it across time and cultures through a Jewish lens. As Horn sketches these vignettes and tells these stories they begin to build up a weight that is felt by Ben in our time and at they same time they explore ideas, concepts and experiences beyond any one family but apply to humanity at large.  I loved the way Horn explored family dynamics and the big questions of life through different characters and yet tied them back to the story of the Ziskind’s

But this is where things begin to unravel toward the end.

I mentioned that the ending frustrated me.  Kirkus seemed to share this view:

Despite the vast oscillations in time and place, the story is remarkably coherent, and it is only in the last 50 pages that Horn runs out of gas. The romance that buds between Ben and Erica is trite and seems tacked on to the otherwise finely crafted tale. And the author’s reliance on symbolism and doubles, which is subtly effective throughout, becomes unwieldy. After an appealing journey into the past, Horn should have left her readers in the present-rather, her final chapter is a confusing and corny look into “the world to come.”An engrossing adventure, in spite of its flaws.

Ron Charles at the Washington Post had a different reaction:

The final section of the book takes one last daring risk, showing us the paradise before this one, where “the beds and hammocks . . . are made out of music, chained melodies and woven symphonies and firm fanfare mattresses and ropy-netted ballads and strong percussive massages.” It’s fanciful and mystical and arguably inadequate to staunch the grief or blot out the horrors that Horn portrays so powerfully throughout this novel. But it’s all tremendously earnest and fraught with moral weight, and somehow, miraculously, it stays aloft in the mind like a dream you can’t decide was sweet or frightening. 

I can see where Charles is coming from. You have to give Horn credit for her boldness and willingness to swim against the current:

The haunting melody of her work arises from Judaism’s spiritual chords rather than its cultural ones, which are far more prevalent in modern fiction. Horn writes about theology and moral imperatives and the afterlife — as though she didn’t realize that such things just aren’t done in sophisticated literary prose. But that daring is endearing, especially when it flows from deeply sympathetic characters, an encyclopedic grasp of 20th-century history and a spiritual sense that sees through the conventional barriers between this life and the one to come — or the one before.

But I have to side with Kirkus on the ending. It just didn’t work for me and more than that it seemed to undermine much of what had preceded it.  You had these wonderful, poignant stories and then what felt like a very silly ending attempting some grand metaphysical exposition but failing. So not only do you not get any real resolution or closure with the characters you care about you end the book with a bad taste in your mouth.

One’s approach to the second half of the novel, particular the ending, seem to determine the level of enjoyment. The Goodreads review are made up mostly of five star praise and two star frustrations. Those who got caught up in the novel seemed to be able to take in the ending and accept it for what it was. Like Ron Charles.  Others, like myself, loved aspects of the novel but were put off in some significant way by the second half or ending.

For my part, definitely worth the two bucks, and I want to check out Horn’s first novel, but ultimately a little disappointing.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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