The Light of Amsterdam

  • David Park
  • Bloomsbury USA
  • 371 pp.

In this novel, three unassociated protagonists traveling from Belfast to Amsterdam have intersecting journeys of self-discovery.

Infidelity, midlife crisis, divorce, suspicion and loneliness are only a few of the topics David Park explores in his newest novel The Light of Amsterdam. Park winds together three separate stories of personal growth in one weekend in the Dutch capital. The three main characters do not know one another before they board a flight from Belfast, but their lives intersect during the journey, and all of them experience epiphanies that will allow them to look at their lives in a different light once they return home.

Alan is a middle-aged art professor burdened with guilt over his one-night affair with a student. He is coming to terms with his ensuing divorce, the contempt of his children and the uncertainty of his job in the face of new university standards. While his ex-wife starts building her new life in Spain, Alan turns to his past, taking his son with him to Amsterdam to see a Bob Dylan concert he has long wanted to see. Dylan and Amsterdam represent a time of idealism and passion for Alan, and he spends the weekend grappling with nostalgia and regret while trying to reconnect with his distant and troubled teenage son.

Karen is a single mother in her 40s. After years of working menial jobs to provide for her daughter Shannon, Karen is struggling with even more costs for her daughter’s upcoming wedding. Karen sees the wedding as her own triumph, the culmination of her fight to give her child everything she never had. During the bachelorette weekend in Amsterdam, Karen learns that Shannon has been in touch with her father and has asked him to walk her down the aisle. Karen is filled with bitterness at the thought that the man who abandoned her while she was pregnant could come back and take part in her triumph. She must decide between saving her own pride by forbidding him to come or maintaining her relationship with her daughter by allowing it.

Marion and Roger are a middle-aged couple who have built a successful gardening business and raised a family. Marion believes her husband is growing tired of her and is looking at other women. Convinced he is eventually going to sleep with someone else, and feeling that waiting for it is the worst part, she prepares some rather dramatic measures in Amsterdam in an effort to take matters into her own hands.

Amsterdam is the setting, but it could be any foreign location that allows the protagonists to step out of their daily routines and reexamine their lives. Park doesn’t turn the novel into a travelogue, but rather keeps the focus on the three main characters and their relationships. He outlines the inner conflicts each character faces clearly and thoroughly, revisiting them multiple times, leaving no reader behind. Interactions between main characters, such as the conversations between Alan and Karen, are faithfully rendered from both characters’ perspectives, one after the other. Park can get a bit repetitive as he circles back through his characters’ thoughts at various times during the weekend, but in the case of Karen, this technique does serve to reinforce the relentlessness of her financial worries and the lingering pain of having been left to raise her daughter on her own.

The protagonists are self-aware enough to recognize their own thinking. Karen realizes that her bitterness is self-destructive. Marion studiously avoids substantive conversation on the day she is about to take her relationship-altering step, knowing her resolve will fail if she faces the issue directly. Alan reflects on his disappointment when the Bob Dylan he hears in concert doesn’t stand up to his memories: “He knew that there was a weakness at his core, a sentimentality that compelled him to find things to elevate and then cherish with his naïve hope and admiration. … And the woman in the art college — he saw now that it had been nothing but a shameful bit of sentimentality, coloured by ego and weakness.”

Readers who prefer to have some room to guess at a character’s motivations, or who like to experience a gradual unpacking of issues throughout a novel, may not find a challenge in Park’s clarity and directness. Others, however, may enjoy the accessibility of his characters and their central conflicts. Even if they haven’t lived it first hand, most people can at least imagine the struggles of divorce, single parenthood, or trying to understand a mercurial teenager. And who has not wondered about — or experienced — the currents running far below the placid surface of a long-standing marriage?

The Light of Amsterdam closes with a mix of resolution and open endings. Park doesn’t neatly tie up all of the open questions, but one does get the sense that the lives and relationships of the main characters are set to improve over time. Park’s straightforward style and explicit descriptions of his characters’ thoughts and feelings make for a clear narrative, but he errs at times on the side of telling the reader about his protagonists rather than letting the reader discover them as events unfold. Despite this, I was still engaged enough to wonder what would happen to them in Amsterdam and wish them the best when they got home.

Tara Campbell is a university admissions professional by day and a writer by night. She is a member of the Washington Writers Group and the D.C. Interdisciplinary Writers Group. Her work has appeared recently on the Potomac Review Blog, and is appearing in December in Hogglepot Journal.

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