I've read it before and am reading it again now for book club purposes. (Yeah, book club! There's hope for you yet!) I wish I hadn't let so many intervening years (6 or 7) go by since I last read this book.
Here's what I love:
- The entire opening chapter. There is nothing to equal it. It stands alone beautifully. In fact, I do believe, although I couldn't swear to it (the front matter of my edition makes no mention of it), that this chapter was originally published as a short story and that is how I first encountered it. A picnic, a yell, five men running toward each other across a field, disorder, tragedy, guilt, the beginning of obsession. I don't want to tell you any more: just read it yourself and then let me know what you think.
- The writing is exquisite. Here's an example; the narrator is describing his experience of recounting the story of the tragedy to friends:
I watched our friends' wary, intelligent faces droop at our tale. Their shock was a mere shadow of our own, resembling more the good-willed imitation of that emotion, and for this reason it was a temptation to exaggerate, to throw a rope of superlatives across the abyss that divided the experience from its representation by anecdote. Over the days and weeks, Clarissa and I told our story many times to friends, colleagues, and relative. I found myself using the same phrases, the same adjectives in the same order. It became possible to recount the events without re-living them in the faintest degree, without even remembering them.* (p. 36)**
- The philosophical questions: What are our moral obligations to our fellow humans; are they different for relations than for strangers; how do we balance self-interest and altruism? What is the biological basis for altruism? How does game theory impact our decisions?
- The science vs. religion threads that appear throughout the story. Rationality vs. irrationality.
- The discussion of love. The parallel discussion of obsession.
* This exactly how I feel when telling a friend a story about something that happened to me. If I have a 1 hour delay in the airport, it pisses me off a certain amount. Let x be that amount. I tell you about it... now, you may like me, but you're not me, so although you sympathize, my feelings of x will elicit something less than x in you. 1/2 x, let's say, if I am lucky. OK, so when I tell you about my experience, I am trying to do more than give you the bare facts. I want to communicate how the experience made me feel. So, without meaning to lie, really, my 1 hour wait at the airport somehow becomes a 2 hour wait at the airport in the retelling. And now you, bless you, feel x too. Thank you.
** Vintage Edition, 1998.