Light Years by James Salter


I picked up this 1975 novel because the author kept turning up on my radar screen and I saw the book had been acclaimed as a great one. 

It is the story of a family in the late 60s and 70s set in that stylish world of a New York City architect whose family has the perfect life in a lovely old house outside the city. It is told in an appealingly episodic way: Nedra and Viri know how to create a beautiful setting for dinner parties, cook perfect food, make up stories for the children on the spot, spend languid summers at the beach, and more. Their friends are colorful and talented (or not) and adore the family. 

Of course things are not as they seem; Viri has an affair and is shown to be pitifully needy. But he can turn in a flash from his longing to creating a wonderfully inventive world for his children. We also see that a family friend is having an affair with Nedra; when she breaks it off, among his complaints are that he loves the children and will miss them. 

Nedra and Viri's veneer begins to wear thin as Viri worries about his lack of success and Nedra begins to be less beautiful. Viri believes success only exists if there is fame and Nedra thinks she will be happy if she leaves him. She leaves him in the house and after a time in Europe, lives in New York. Viri eventually sells the house. The episodic nature of the novel does not fully spell out how things happen in a way that makes sense of the characters' choices. Occasionally I wondered why the author recounted some of the characters' actions or thoughts and found them mystifying: did the author consider them ridiculous? Some of the choices seemed related to the times; Nedra looking for a more fulfilling life just as many women were questioning their possibilities and her effort to attach herself to a cult-like theatre group.

While I found the book in many ways a pleasing read, it was troubling too. I was made uneasy by Nedra's apparent ability to live on thin air; she never seemed to have a need to support herself, but didn't seem to have access to real money. Viri seemed undone by his lack of comfort in his own skin; without fame, his accomplishments were nothing. Most importantly I couldn't tell how the author saw the characters and they didn't seem coherent to me.

When I finished the book, I read this New Yorker article from 2013 and found that it explained much about the novel. The most salient bit of information is that when it was published, close friends of the Salter family discovered their lives paralleled characters in the book and details of their lives recounted in the book, down to dinner party conversations. In a more uncomfortable turn of events, the Rosenthals were later divorced as if their lives were foreshadowed by the book. The book also takes much from the Salters' lives as well, and yes, they too were divorced. The article details Salter's own desire for greater acclaim which shows up in his character Viri.

James Salter, Light Years, Random House, 1975, 308 pages. Available in the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.

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