The King in the Tree

I just got back from a week’s vacation in lovely California, and while I had a wonderful time seeing family and visiting places I haven’t seen for years, I didn’t get a word read!

Yes, you read that right. Between long, enjoyable conversations, wrestling small children into submission, making sure said children didn’t drown in the river, and falling into bed too exhausted to keep my eyes open at night, I didn’t have a single chance to read. Which is why I was so delighted to return to Steven Millhauser’s The King in the Tree, a collection of three novellas that are surprising, beautiful, disturbing, poignant, wrenching and wry.

“Revenge,” the first novella, is told in the voice of a woman who was betrayed by her late husband and is trying to sell the house where they once lived together. Each room reveals more of her secrets, until we are mesmerized, uncomfortable but unable to leave, trapped in this pathological relationship that lasts beyond the grave. “An Adventure of Don Juan” takes the fabled lover to England, where he learns that the power of love is greater even than the power of seduction. And “The King in the Tree,” which gives the book its title, is a retelling of the legend of Tristan and Isolt, and shows in utterly beautiful language the disturbing, literally fatal power of love.

These novellas were wonderful. My own favorite was the last. I’ve taught the story of Tristan and Isolt often enough in French classes to know that students sometimes have trouble understanding the heart of it, trouble understanding why the couple’s behavior was disastrous and not heroic. Millhauser frames the trouble in terms of jealousy and honor, which is almost right. If he had talked more about the religious aspect of honor at that time — how it nearly equated to salvation and sanity — it would have been perfect. Still, this novella brings it home, to the center of the heart, how perfect love can bring a king to his knees and a living kingdom into ruin; a beautiful girl into bitter hatred and a strong man to death.

I had originally planned to read Little Kingdoms by Millhauser, because that was the book of his that Michael Dirda recommended in Bound to Please, but this was the one my library happened to have. Little Kingdoms will certainly stay on my TBR list. I can’t wait to read more of Millhauser’s work.

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