Tom Flaherty is a Caltech professor, world-renowned physicist and String theorist. He takes a sabbatical and moves back home to Washington State to help take care of his aging mother who’s been diagnosed with a rare form of dementia. Maude Flaherty’s dementia causes her to journey back in time and relive her memories.
During his sabbatical, Tom is invited to guest lecture at the University of Washington where he begins a series of lectures on space, time and the cosmos. While his return home heralds a rekindling of old friendships and the formation of new ones, it is not an easy family reunion as Tom comes to terms with his mother’s aging and illness, and is forced to face the issues surrounding his painful relationship with his sister. But all these things coalesce and serve as catalysts for Tom’s realization that he’s been hiding from life since the violent death of his lover and partner, and that it’s time to start living again.
“…We are not so much who we are by what we know, but by what we wonder. So go and seek and you shall find. And once you find that, go and seek some more.”
Wonder: A Novel by Dan Boyle is one of the most conceptually captivating books that I’ve read in quite a while. One that engages the reader on a multitude of levels both intellectually and emotionally. In this novel the author marries the subject-matter of quantum physics, namely String Theory, or the Theory of Everything, with the main character’s journey of healing and self-discovery. It is an extremely well written novel in which the author deftly interweaves incredibly complex themes that deal with physical and metaphysical questions of space, time and existence with the emotional complexities of personal loss and family relationships to write a story that at its heart is all about our interconnectedness and the possibilities of the universe.
The story is written in the third person and alternates perspectives between Tom and Maude Flaherty. In Tom, the author has written an introspective and reserved man who has sustained tremendous personal loss through the violent death of his partner and his estrangement from his sister and years after is still grieving – essentially having retreated from society and life by hiding behind his research. Maude Flaherty is a formidable character – a trailblazer, who has lived her life by her own rules without concern for society’s expectations as it relates to her sex, motherhood and the role of women as ascribed by society.
Spanning almost a century, the narrative gracefully moves from present to past and back again as Maude’s dementia causes her to relive past relationships and events against the backdrop of such transformative historical events as the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial, the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the rise of Nazi Germany, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Maude’s travel back in time serves as a means of establishing the family’s ancestral history and their prominent involvement in historical world event, and provides great insight into the dynamics of the Flaherty family. The experience of her illness and how she deals with her dementia also serves as a catalyst for Tom’s healing and growth. This coupled with what Tom learns about himself through his lectures and interactions with his students, and old and new friends, and his inevitable confrontation with his sister over past hurts all contribute to his personal revelations about himself, his life and his future.
Through the ample, richly textured and honest voice that Boyle ascribes to both Tom and Maude coupled with well-drawn out secondary characters, diverse sub-textual themes emerge as part of the over-arching storyline, touching upon such issues as the relevance of intuitive versus empirical knowledge, physical death versus metaphysical immortality, modern medicine’s assumptions about the aging and the sick, homophobia and the relationship between parent and the individual child and its impact on family dynamics.
Despite the heady subject matter of quantum physics, I comfortably slipped into reading this novel and this is wholly due to the author’s amazing ability to write about conceptually complex issues in an easily understandable manner without compromising their inherent substance, while simultaneously revealing their significance in respect of our everyday lives and relationships. As a reader I love nothing more than a well-written book that challenges me and makes me think, not only in respect of the story and its characters, but also in terms of their resonance in respect of my own life experience. As such, I purposely read this novel slowly in order to truly absorb and consider the plethora of ideas being put forward by the author and the story nourished both my mind and heart.
Wonder by Dan Boyle is beautifully written and through Tom’s story speaks to our individual journeys to seek answers to questions of our own purpose and existence, our need for connection and belonging through our relationships, our interconnectedness with all that is encompassed within the universe, and ultimately that we are all an intricate part of the continuum that is Everything. Highly recommended.
Wonder: A Novel by Dan Boyle is available in print and Kindle formats at Amazon.
Music: Jupiter – The Planets by Gustav Holst