The Sorrows of an American A Novel

Siri Hustvedt




Trade Paperback

320 Pages



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Longlisted for the International IMPAC Literary Award

The Sorrows of an American is a story about the immigrant experience and the ghosts that haunt families from one generation to another. When psychiatrist Erik Davidsen and his sister, Inga, find a disturbing note from an unknown woman among their dead father's papers, they believe he may be implicated in a mysterious death. Starting with the note, brother and sister uncover the Davidsen family's secrets and unbandage its wounds in the year following their father's funeral.

The grieving siblings return to New York from Minnesota, and they continue to pursue the mystery behind the note. While Erik struggles with emotional vulnerability to his psychiatric patients and his fascination with new tenants in his building threatens to overwhelm him, Inga is confronted by a hostile journalist who seems to know a secret connected to her dead husband, who was a famous novelist. As each new mystery unfolds, Erik begins to inhabit his emotionally hidden father's history and to glimpse how his impoverished childhood, the Depression, and the war shaped his relationship with his children. At the same time, Inga must confront the reality of her husband's double life.

The Sorrows of an American is a novel about fathers and children; listening and deafness; recognition and blindness; the pain of speaking and the pain of keeping silent; and the ambiguities of memory, loneliness, illness, and recovery. Siri Hustvedt's prose reveals one family's hidden sorrows through a mosaic of secrets and stories that reflect the fragmented nature of identity itself.


Praise for The Sorrows of an American

"The Sorrows of an American is a thought-provoking book that offers pleasures across many different registers. Hustvedt's descriptions of the immigrant experience and the Minnesota landscape have a spare Scandinavian elegance, while her account of the life of a Brooklyn psychoanalyst feels quietly authentic. She takes unapologetic delight in intellectual characters who understand their lives through far-ranging reading and lively conversation . . . Hustvedt explored the milieu of New York writers and academics in her last novel, What I Loved—in fact, Leo Hertzberg, that book's art-historian narrator, appears briefly at a dinner party at Inga's apartment—and here again she proves herself a writer deftly able to weave intricate ideas into an intriguing plot."—Sylvia Brownrigg, The New York Times

"A jarring, long-echoing evocation of the existential vertigo induced by the loss of those whom we miss most desperately, and thus of our place in their world."—Ben Dickinson, Elle

"One of the most profound and absorbing books I've read in a long time. Hustvedt pushes hard on what a novel can do and what a reader can absorb, but once you fall into this captivating story the experience will make you feel alternately inadequate and brilliant—and finally deeply grateful . . . Hustvedt seems unwilling to turn away any tangential character; she practices a kind of authorial hospitality that gives the book an ever-growing list of side stories. Not the least of these is told in arresting excerpts from the memoir by Erik's father that describes his childhood during the Depression and his experiences as a soldier in World War II. Erik studies this manuscript with rapt attention, knowing it contains the best chance of understanding his heritage and perhaps his own troubled soul as well. Hustvedt reveals in the acknowledgments that these stirring passages from the senior Davidsen's memoir were, in fact, taken almost verbatim from her own late father's memoir, making The Sorrows of an American a striking demonstration of its own theme: the blending of fiction and nonfiction that gives coherence to our lives . . . Hustvedt elegantly knits together these subplots, often from different genres: elements of the thriller, the hospital drama, the historical novel and even the spy caper and noir film, along with autobiographical, philosophy, letters, case studies and art criticism . . . This is a radically postmodern novel that wears its po-mo credentials with unusual grace; even at its strangest moments, it never radiates the chilly alienation that marks, say, the work of Hustvedt's husband, Paul Auster. The remarkable conclusion of The Sorrows is a four-page recapitulation of the story's images racing through Erik's mind—and ours. It's a stunning, Joycean demonstration that invites us to impose some sense of meaning on a disparate collection of events, to satisfy our lust for 'a world that makes sense.' I reached the end emotionally and intellectually exhausted, knowing how much I'll miss this book."—Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World

"In a poignant opening scene of Siri Hustvedt's fourth novel, Erik Davidsen cleans out his deceased father's desk. He finds a ring of keys meticulously labeled 'unknown,' which symbolizes the secrets that Lars, his father, has left behind. Erik and his sister, Inga, also find an unfinished memoir and a letter. The memoir, which is quoted throughout the novel, helps establish the pace of the story and is a window into his father's life before marriage and a family . . . The meditative tone of the book is poetry at its best; the language has resonance and meter and meaning. Its cadence is often in sharp contrast to bustling New York City and its inhabitants. But it is in describing Erik's pastoral Minnesota hometown that Hustvedt, a native Minnesotan, is at her best . . . Memories are as alive as the present in this book. They produce sensory scenes where characters eavesdrop into their own lives as well as into the lives of their ancestors. But the book isn't all about the interior. The characters are very much alive. Hustvedt provides nicely drawn details of both the intimate and mundane in their day-to-day lives, and she clearly has done meticulous research into psychiatry and psychoanalysis . . . At its heart, The Sorrow of an American explores loneliness and untold stories. It asks the question, 'How do we make amends with our memoirs?' It suggests we continue by surviving 'the loveless present.' We continue by trying first one key, then the next, until a door opens."—Sherrie Flick, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"The death of their father sets a brother and sister on the path to discoveries about their loved ones and themselves . . . Passages of piercing beauty evoke Lars's hardscrabble past on a Depression-era farm and as a soldier in World War II, as well as the complex bonds of love, guilt, regret and joy that bind families together . . . Hustvedt writes spectacular sentences that embody the American experience in brilliantly specific physical imagery . . . Ambitious, moving and sometimes maddening-but never, ever dull."—Kirkus Reviews

"'Dear Lars, I know you will never ever say nothing about what happened.' These words, found in an old letter addressed to his deceased father, shake New York psychoanalyst Erik Davidsen to the core. Was his father once involved in something questionable? Despite the misgivings of his sister, Inga, recently widowed and contending with both a conflicted daughter and a nasty reporter threatening to unburden herself of secrets regarding the duplicity of Inga's celebrated novelist husband, Erik tracks down the truth—which is both stranger and more gratifying than he could have imagined. But this is not a novel about solving mysteries: it's about the secrets we keep and the delicate tangle of relationships we maintain. Even as he sorts out his father's life, Erik must come to terms with his own devastating loneliness and his attraction to his new tenant, Jamaican artist Miranda—who is in turn being stalked, sort of, by her daughter's father. Complex relationships, indeed, but the narrative is breathtakingly clear, heartfelt, and involving. Hustvedt has written a novel of quiet strength."—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

"In her fourth novel, Hustvedt continues, with grace and aplomb, her exploration of family connectedness, loss, grief and art. Narrator and New York psychoanalyst Erik Davidsen returns to his Minnesota hometown to sort through his recently deceased father Lars's papers. Erik's writer sister, Inga, soon discovers a letter from someone named Lisa that hints at a death that their father was involved in. Over the course of the book, the siblings track down people who might be able to provide information on the letter writer's identity. The two also contend with other looming ghosts. Erik immerses himself in the text of his father's diary as he develops an infatuation with Miranda, a Jamaican artist who lives downstairs with her daughter. Meanwhile, Inga, herself recently widowed, is reeling from potentially damaging secrets being revealed about the personal life of her dead husband, a well-known novelist and screenplay writer. Hustvedt gives great breaths of authenticity to Erik's counseling practice, life in Minnesota and Miranda's Jamaican heritage, and the anticlimax she creates is calming and justified; there's a terrific real-world twist revealed in the acknowledgments."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

My sister called it "the year of secrets," but when I look back on it now, I've come to understand that it was a time not of what was there, but of what wasn't. A patient of mine once said, "There are ghosts walking around inside me, but they don't...

Read the full excerpt


  • Siri Hustvedt

  • Siri Hustvedt is the author of three previous novels, What I Loved, The Blindfold, and The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, as well as a collection of essays, A Plea for Eros. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Paul Auster.

  • Siri Hustvedt Marion Ettlinger
    Siri Hustvedt




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