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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry / fiction

Darlington's Fall

Brad Leithauser

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To purchase Darlington's Fall

Title: Darlington's Fall
Author: Brad Leithauser
Genre: Novel in Verse
Written: 2002
Length: 313 pages
Availability: Darlington's Fall - US
Darlington's Fall - UK
Darlington's Fall - Canada
  • A Novel in Verse
  • With drawings by Mark Leithauser

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Our Assessment:

A- : enjoyable, well-told tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor A 4/4/2002 Ron Charles
The LA Times A 31/3/2002 Jonathan Levi
The NY Rev. of Books A 9/5/2002 W.S.Merwin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 28/7/2002 Eric McHenry
Wall St. Journal A 22/3/2002 David Yezzi
The Washington Post A 31/3/2002 Michael Lind

  Review Consensus:

  Remarkable and enjoyable.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)his is a journey as unlikely and remarkable as the annual 2,200-mile migration of monarchs. (...) Leithauser's story suffers no deprivation from its form. There's nothing he can't catch in this net of verse. In fact, the narrative sounds magically enhanced by his quirky 10-line stanzas with their "catch-as-catch-can rhymes" flitting through every line." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "The result is charming and quite wonderful. (...)Without a prescribed structure to either stanza or line, these rhymes land with a pleasantly random butterfly motion, pushing the story forward with only the faintest, poetic sashaying of wings." - Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Mr. Leithauser's verse is clear, readable, and inviting (.....) able to convey not only the dimensions of metaphor but what he calls "specificity" simply, appropriately, and without abandoning or compromising the form or mode of his poem. (...) His account becomes a page-turner not in spite of the verse but because of it" - W.S.Merwin, The New York Review of Books

  • "The irregularly rhymed, hetero-metric 10-line stanza he uses here is strict enough to strain out unnecessary detail but flexible enough to accomodate grand descriptive flourishes. (...) Darlington's Fall is not just coherent but tight." - Eric McHenry, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Darlington's Fall is a distinguished contribution to the revival of narrative poetry in our time. (...) Brad Leithauser unites his skill as a storyteller with his craft as a poet in this gentle and elegant novel in verse. (...) Natural science is as much the subject of the novel as the vocation of its main character, who undergoes his struggles in a Darwinian universe from which the consolations of myth and religion have been driven by intellectual labors such as those of Darlington himself." - Michael Lind, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Brad Leithauser's novel in verse is presented in twelve chapters, the story told in ten-line stanzas. Verse can be intimidating, and novels in verse -- a few hundred pages of one story -- doubly so. But, like several other such recent endeavours (for example Glyn Maxwell's Time's Fool (see our review) or especially Les Murray's Fredy Neptune (see our review)), Leithauser has managed near the best of both worlds. He tells a fine story, and he tells it very well. The poetry rolls along effortlessly, leading the reader on eagerly and easily. The rhymes "fall catch-as-catch-can", with Leithauser never forcing the issue: the result is a loose, undogmatic, approachable work.
       Darlington's Fall tells the story of Russel Darlington. The first chapter introduces him in childhood: motherless, seven years old, living in Storey, Indiana -- and already clearly "a born professor". The natural world, rather than that of fantasy, is what appeals to him. He prefers to read non-fiction even at a young age: "Fact is good enough when the world's miraculous."
       Russel is fascinated by butterflies, and his life is changed when his father takes him to his old alma mater, the regional university in Remington, "some thirty miles distant", to get an expert to identify one of his specimens. John Darlington is friends with the dean, and he in turn is glad to introduce the boy to Professor Schrock, a disfigured Austrian who is a leading man in his field (and would go on to become "the world's preeminent / Expert on lepidopteran parasites"). Schrock goes on to become Russel's mentor, as the boy devotes himself from then on to the study of lepidoptery.
       Academic success comes easily to Russ, and though he could attend the fanciest Ivy League colleges he decides to study under Schrock, closer to home. College is a new experience, but one he also masters. He even finds love.
       Russ' professional ambition then leads him to want to make his mark, and he ventures far afield in search of undiscovered butterflies. It is here he takes a crippling fall, changing his life. Ambition is thwarted, the future looks grimmer. He returns back home, he and his wife go their separate ways.
       Russ does find a purpose again when he is commissioned to undertake a great survey, Life's Kingdoms, a textbook that will keep him busy for years. It is the "touchingly / Mislaid confidence of his" that allows Russ to present life as simply divided into two kingdoms -- a view soon superseded by the advances in biology, as the world proves to be far more complex. But Russ lives happily enough with his world-view.
       His father leaves money for a large museum of natural sciences to be built at the university, and it is here Russ comes into contact with an artist, commissioned to paint a "four-part mural-cum-cyclorama" showing the "Progress of Life". Fantasy and reality again clash, and Russ finds himself intrigued by both the artist and his art. Russ himself also continues to work away. As the years pass he suffers losses, but eventually he also finds love again.
       An added dimension in the book comes from the unexpected appearance of the author in the text, explaining why this story is being told -- and recounting some of his own efforts to follow in Russ' footsteps.

       Darlington's Fall tells an always engaging story. Russ' lifetime is easily compressed in these pages, largely unremarkable (except for a tumble or two, and some modest successes), and yet still gripping and full. The flow of the writing -- taking full advantage of the poetry -- is fast but not furious: the reader glides along comfortably, hardly aware of the rush, only occasionally astounded by how much has passed by so quickly.
       The reader is often reminded that: "Books are small / And the world is big", but Leithauser proves that worlds (and whole lives) can be related in the space of only a few pages: the wonder of art. Russ is a rich character, fully developed: no detailed biography could present more of the man.
       Wordsworth was a favoured poet: here Russ found:

          a man who showed in his art
A reverence for Nature so profound
The words finally didn't get in the way.
       Leithauser aspires to something similar -- at least in trying to tell a story where the words don't "get in the way". He manages, most of the way, very well. Though not completely satisfactorily rounded off -- ambition and presentation don't work together in the concluding sections as well as they do earlier in the book -- Darlington's Fall is a very enjoyable read, a touching story that is very nicely presented. And Mark Leithauser's exceptional drawings are also a plus: a neat complement to the text.

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Darlington's Fall: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Brad Leithauser has published several works of fiction and of poetry. He graduated from both Harvard college and law school, and currently teaches at Mount Holyoke.

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© 2002-2008 the complete review

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