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Palo Alto

Palo Alto - James Franco This is the first thing I've read by Ali Smith, so forgive me if I gush over elements that may seem tiresome to those of longer acquaintance. From a slight and silly premise (at a fancy dinner party in Greenwich, a man goes upstairs and locks himself into the guest suite), Smith develops an original set of characters and a solid theme that never feels too heavy. The theme is, let's call it "the role of individuals in history" (where history is both History and personal history), and the character who most explicitly develops it is nearly-ten-year-old Brooke; the novel is divided into four sections, and she takes the last one, so she's the individual who writes the end of this particular history.The other three sections are told by Anna, Mark, and May, people at a range of ages and stations in life; all four have some distant relationship to the man who's locked himself in, and all are affected by that seemingly insignificant act—an act of withdrawal, of abnegation ("I prefer not to"), to boot. Mark's section made me think of Jacob's Room or Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway; May's reminded me of the escape-from-the-nursing-home section of Cloud Atlas: A Novel. Such rhymes and echoes may well be deliberate, since rhyming and echoing across history is one aspect of the theme; it's set in Greenwich, arbitrarily chosen by history as the zero-point of longitude, so perspective is another aspect. But instead of taking all these heavy ideas and constructing a dense and turgid stew, Smith tosses them lightly into a salad. I read it quickly and enjoyed it thoroughly, and I can only hope her other books are as much fun.