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Dolce Agonia

by Nancy Huston

The dinner party has long been a handy plot device for writers. Consider the delicious possibilities: a diverse cast of characters, secret agendas, smoldering affairs, equal parts dialogue and inner monologue, the chance to toss off some pithy bon mots, all lubricated by alcohol and ensconced in the simplicity of one setting. Yum. In Nancy Huston’s new novel, Dolce Agonia, the dinner party trick does not fail.

The host is Sean, a crusty 40ish poet with a freshly minted lung cancer diagnosis that he’s keeping to himself. He’s throwing a Thanksgiving Day dinner party for 12 assorted friends and colleagues who find themselves family-free and at loose ends on the holiday weekend. For his own amusement, Sean aims to get everyone good and sloshed, and his guests become by turns reflective, maudlin, or nasty, depending on temperament.

The spoken conversation lurches from such topics as screwed-up kids to inferior bagels – a mix of the banal and the intriguing, like any party talk. And, like most conversations, the more interesting dialogue is the unspoken, voice-in-your-head kind that zooms off on tangents like sparks from a campfire. Musings on sexual fantasies, a grandmother’s kitchen, cocaine-induced bird torture, First Communion shoes, the lighting of a menorah, and more float up from the guests’ subconsciouses.

This can make for some choppy reading, especially when you add the voice of God into the mix. He’s also at this dinner party, His voice interspersed between chapters. Apparently a droll and pompous fellow, God describes the rest of each character’s life and how he or she dies, a device that feels slightly forced.

Despite the deific chatter, Dolce Agonia is a good read. Huston has an eloquent and witty way with dialogue, and her characters are memorable, no mean feat when there’s a baker’s dozen of them. It’s also fascinating to see the decidedly unbourgeois locales, from a stroll through Vancouver’s rundown East Hastings Street to the killing fields in Johannesburg, that are remembered around an upper middle class table in a New England university town. Huston’s last novel, The Mark of the Angel, was shortlisted for the 1999 Giller Prize. Dolce Agonia may very well get her invited to the party again.


Reviewer: Bonnie Schiedel

Publisher: McArthur & Company


Price: $29.95

Page Count: 240 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 1-55278-244-1

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 2001-10

Categories: Children and YA Non-fiction, Fiction: Novels