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Recovering Charles, a Book Review
The mark of a great story is often the simplicity with which the author tells it. That is the case with Jason F. Wright’s 2008 novel, Recovering Charles. The story is set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The main character, Luke Millward, reluctantly goes there to find his father, whom he assumes is dead. As the story progresses, the title takes on a triple meaning, and the one least obvious becomes the most moving.
Luke narrates his story with a detachment that belies his photographer’s eagle eye. He has made a name for himself in NY, having had photos on many magazine covers. He has cast himself as a loner ever since his mother committed suicide and his musician father lost himself in the bottom of a bottle. Once Luke leaves home, his father moves from state to state, following jobs or drinks. He periodically interrupts Luke’s life to ask for money. In their last conversation, Luke agrees to send him money if his father will stay out of his life. That was two years ago. Now, out of the blue, Luke gets a phone call from someone in New Orleans who asks Luke to come down and help them look for his father, Charles.
Recovering Charles is a stage where cultures merge and politics take on personal meaning. New Orleans is underwater and those people foolish enough or unlucky enough not to have evacuated are stranded in trees, on rooftops and at the Super Dome. Bodies are everywhere, and it seems time is moving in slow motion, since it takes a while to feel like help will come. By the time Luke gets there, he expects clean-up to be well underway, but is surprised that the city still looks much like it did on the news… and worse. The people he meets and the stories they tell, both about the storm and about his father, change his life.
The story is structured in three layers. It includes information about Luke’s life as a photographer, the story of his father and mother, and his search for his father. Because Wright weaves in the back-story between the present search, he makes Luke’s internal conflict between not wanting to reunite with his father and his decision to search for him even more believable. Jez, Charles’ fiancé leads Luke in his effort to recover his father’s body; at the same time, she and her brother, Jerome, remind Luke of the good times with his father by telling him the stories Charles had told them. They make Luke aware of the person his father has become by telling him stories about his music, his philanthropy, his alcoholic recovery, and his heroism. Eventually, Luke is able to release his resentment toward his father and recover the love.
Recovering Charles is a novel that reads like autobiography. Readers can easily forget that Luke is not Jason Wright; the story feels so real-- like some real person must have lived through it. We get immersed in the description of Katrina’s destruction and caught up in Luke’s search, hoping that in the end not only with he find Charles alive, but also that the two will reconnect on an emotional level. It is a beautiful, beautiful story that is both easy to read and easy to love. If you fall in love with Recovering Charles, you might want to check out Wright's previous two best sellers, Christmas Jars and The Wednesday Letters.