Hustvedt's novel, largely centered around her father's death three years ago, explores how the traumatic memory haunts the story's protagonist, Eric, a New York psychotherapist, when he returns to Minnesota to sort through his deceased father's papers. Along the way, he finds a cryptic letter and begins the slow process of understanding how "ghosts" can haunt families for generations.
Hustvedt read excerpts from the beginning of her work to the very end. Woven through first-person narration extremely well, fragments of memories were well documented, even in the short session in Viking. Eric begins to understand the fragmented histories of his family by piecing together important emotional events.
A Northfield native, Hustvedt came back to Minnesota to research family events, as her protagonist in "Sorrows of an American" does. She found actual memoirs, which she uses in her novel. Hustvedt read a passage of Lars' memoir on the South Pacific Battlefield during World War II, where he witnessed the killing of a Japanese officer. Interwoven are Eric's emotions, thoughts and judgments in the first-person, suggesting that the past has as an inexplicable effect on the present.
"In my acknowledgements," said Hustvedt in a brief question and answer session following her reading, "I say that my father is my collaborator. This text belongs to my father."
While listening to Hustvedt read short passages over a half-hour span, you got the sense that "Sorrows of an American" is built around a multitude of characters and plot lines. Reviewers may say that this detracts from a resolution, but perhaps the story doesn't need one. The story is about families, grief, loss and history -- and with these themes come little resolution.
Hustvedt read excerpts involving a father's death, a husband's death, a wife leaving and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For Hustvedt to expect resolution, to write this novel with two characters and one or even two plot lines -- and then tie it together -- would seem unrealistic given such a varied history of immigration.
"Sorrows of an American" is Hustvedt's fifth novel. She has also published a collection of poetry ("Reading to You") and three collections of essays. In addition, Hustvedt has been published in several anthologies, including "The Best American Short Stories" (1990) and the "Art of the Essay" (1999).
"["Sorrows of an American"] is about point and counterpoint," said Hustvedt of her most recent work. "It's about themes chasing each other. It's about traumatic memory."