McFarland, Dennis 1950–
McFarland, Dennis 1950–
Born 1950; married Michelle Simons (a writer); children: Kate, Sam. Education: Brooklyn College, B.A., 1975; attended Goddard College and Stanford University.
Home—Watertown, MA; San Francisco, CA.
Writer. Stanford University, teacher of creative writing, 1981-86; also worked as teacher at Goddard College and Emerson College.
Wallace Stegner fellowship, 1981.
The Music Room, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1990.
School for the Blind, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1994.
A Face at the Window, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Singing Boy, Holt (New York, NY), 2001.
Prince Edward, Holt (New York, NY), 2004.
Letter from Point Clear, Holt (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to periodicals, including Mademoiselle, Mid-American Review, New Yorker, and Sequoia.
The Music Room was optioned for a movie.
Dennis McFarland is the author of several novels, including The Music Room, his highly acclaimed debut, School for the Blind, A Face at the Window, and Singing Boy, each of which focuses on a family ravaged in some tangible way by alcoholism. He has also produced historical fiction, as in Prince Edward, and the tale of a family in crisis over religion and marriage in Letter from Point Clear. His fictional works have received consistent praise from reviewers; Newsweek reviewer David Gates, hailing McFarland as a "brilliant writer," voiced special praise for The Music Room, citing "dialogue you can hear … and detail you can see" as among its exceptional features. Of A Face at the Window, Wall Street Journal contributor Merle Rubin commented, "With empathy and tough-minded perspicacity, Mr. McFarland explores the perplexing questions of why some people are drawn to the darker side."
The central figure of 1990's The Music Room is Martin Lambert, a twenty-nine-year-old who is introduced to the reader while he recalls his broken marriage. Memories of Lambert's separation from his wife turn to recollections of his own childhood. No sooner does he begin sobbing because of painful memories than a phone call from New York City informs him that his brother, Perry, has leaped from a twenty-third-floor window and killed himself. After receiving this shattering news, Lambert travels from his San Francisco home to uncover the chain of events resulting in Perry's suicide.
Much of The Music Room, which is framed as a mystery, concerns Lambert's reflections of his home life in childhood. His parents, a pianist and a dancer, were both alcoholics, and they eventually exhausted their wealth and their health. As adults, both brothers have developed their own careers in music, but they have also inherited the parents' emotional troubles. After Lambert arrives in New York City to close Perry's various business affairs, he finds himself drawn to his dead brother's girlfriend, Jane; in turn, Jane is intrigued by Martin's resemblance to Perry, and the two soon fall in love.
In investigating his brother's life, Lambert makes the surprising discovery that Perry had worked with abused children—indeed, Perry had even changed his will and left his money to a center for such children. While probing his brother's life, Lambert continually recalls their shared childhood. Perry, Martin realizes, actually possessed a greater understanding of the family's self-destructive bent, though he lacked insight into alcohol's powerful part in that dysfunction. As Lambert begins developing a keener understanding of his family, he intensifies his own dependence upon alcohol.
Although structured as a mystery, The Music Room does not end in neat resolutions. Lambert—who has begun to sense the future and even to suspect that his brother is trying to contact him from beyond the grave—is compelled to return to the family home in Norfolk, where his mother resides in a state of alcohol-induced semi-consciousness. As his personal life grows increasingly complicated and his sense of the past grows more profound, Lambert manages some life-changing realizations, and thus the novel itself culminates in a stirring sense of life itself. As Josephine Humphreys wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "The Music Room … builds to a comprehensive vision, remarkable from its beginning to its surprising, satisfying end."
Upon publication in 1990, The Music Room won widespread praise. New York Times contributor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt proclaimed the work "beautifully written" and recognized its "many virtues." Another reviewer, Stephen Amidon, wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that The Music Room is "a strong novel," and he deemed it "deeply felt." "It would be fair to say that this is a reasonably ‘faultless’ first novel, carefully observed, self-scrutinizing without excessive self-consciousness, and written so seamlessly that you don't really notice the writing," judged Merle Rubin in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
With The Music Room, McFarland won a fair measure of popular success in addition to the critical acclaim; however, as he told Washington Post writer Raj Kamal Jha: "I am very surprised that a book which was perceived by my agent and publisher as a ‘literary’ work is so popular." McFarland attributed the book's achievement to "a lot of good luck, a beautiful cover, a wonderful editor, and wonderful reviews." McFarland disclosed to Jha that, like the characters in The Music Room, he had to "come to terms … with alcohol," a process during which he also developed an interest in "spiritual life." To New York Times writer D.J.R. Bruckner, McFarland observed that the success of The Music Room would enable him to more freely pursue his interests and his writing. "That's a great thing," McFarland acknowledged.
McFarland has had several more novels published in the years since his first success. In School for the Blind, published in 1994, he once again deals with a haunted past. In the novel, seventy-three-year-old Francis Brimm, a photographer who has cocooned himself into an orderly existence, retires and returns home to the town he grew up in and where his sister, Muriel, still lives a quiet spinster's life. Once again in close proximity, memories of their past haunt each sibling independently, and the present intrudes, bringing them both to the realization that much has been missing from their lives. At the close of the novel, as Francis begins to die, his understanding of "the need for passion and the danger of it … has entered the texture of his last days," in the words of New York Times Book Review critic Sven Birkets. Noting that the novel shares many elements with The Music Room, Chicago Tribune Books contributor Shelby Hearon noted that School for the Blind "lingers in the mind long after it is read, resonating with the complex message of redemption."
Singing Boy concerns the murder of a Boston college professor, Malcolm Vaughn, and the effect his death has on his grieving family. "McFarland's real subject," noted a Kirkus Reviews critic of the novel, "is grief, the deep and wide swath it cuts across his characters' lives, and the minute gradations of anxiety, anger, desperation, and guilt each experiences." Carolyn Kubisz, reviewing the novel for Booklist, found that McFarland "tells a story that is moving and powerful."
With his 2004 work, Prince Edward, McFarland makes an abrupt departure from his modern novels, working in historical fiction to depict a dark page from the state of Virginia's past, and one featuring a ten-year-old protagonist. McFarland looks at the civil rights era in this novel set in the summer of 1959 when the school board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, opted to close its schools rather than have them forcefully integrated, as was stipulated in the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education. The events of the day are witnessed by Benjamin Rome, the son of a local staunch segregationist and best friend of a black youth, Burghardt, who works with him at the Rome poultry farm. McFarland invents a colorful cast of characters for Ben to filter: the parents who are at odds with one another; a sister who has an abortion; an older brother who does not want to become involved in the integration-segregation battle, but does; and Ben's grandfather, Daddy Gary. Ben discovers that his father and brother are helping to supply the new private school, which will be segregated, with stolen books and sports equipment from the closed public schools, while his grandfather is banding with other businessmen to keep the locals in line and against integration. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found this a "fine and affecting novel," and further called McFarland a "novelist of quiet eloquence." Similarly, Starr E. Smith, writing in School Library Journal, found Prince Edward an "evocative novel [that] depicts the white power structure's cruel response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision." Less impressed was Library Journal contributor Edward B. St. John, who noted: "This fact-based historical novel seems to have been written with book clubs and discussion groups in mind." A similar mixed evaluation came from a Kirkus Reviews critic who termed the book "affecting but uneven." However, Bill Ott, writing in Booklist, had a higher assessment of the work, observing that "McFarland shows admirable restraint in telling this emotionally charged story." And Francine Prose, writing in O, the Oprah Magazine, found the work "thoughtful and resonant."
In his 2007 work, Letter from Point Clear, McFarland returns to more familiar fictional ground, dealing with a family undergoing the vicissitudes of tragedy and bad fortune, in this case of the family's own creation. Siblings Morris and Ellen Owen, living in New England, rush to the aid of their sister, impetuous Bonnie, who, they learn, has married an evangelical minister. Thinking this marriage is along the lines of other unwise and sometimes drug-induced decisions their younger sister has made in her life, the older brother and sister naturally assume Bonnie needs saving. But when they arrive in Alabama, where she is living with her husband in the Owen family mansion, the two discover that Bonnie is relatively happy and pregnant. When the pastor discovers that his new brother-in-law, Morris, is gay, the tables are turned as the minister attempts to save Morris. Tensions increase as Ellen and Morris find themselves verbally battling the pastor and other clergy. Reviewing this novel in Booklist, Carol Haggas thought "McFarland is at the peak of his psychological prowess." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly reviewer thought that McFarland's "ability to tap the hearts and minds of his carefully considered characters adds up to an evocative novel." New York Times Book Review critic Richard B. Woodward was less enthusiastic about the book, however, finding that McFarland's usual solid characters and plots were missing. "The Southern heat seems to have wilted the muscle tone of his prose and his characters," Woodward wrote. A Kirkus Reviews critic, on the other hand, had high praise for Letter from Point Clear, terming it "a novel of nuanced emotional complexity, with a refreshing emphasis on character rather than on post-modern angst." The reviewer also called it a "work to be savored."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 65, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990.
Booklist, May 12, 1994, review of School for the Blind, p. 1583; February 1, 2001, Carolyn Kubisz, review of Singing Boy, p. 1040; May 1, 2004, Bill Ott, review of Prince Edward, p. 1546; June 1, 2007, Carol Haggas, review of Letter from Point Clear, p. 37.
Christian Century, May 24, 1995, review of School for the Blind, p. 567.
Guardian Weekly, September 4, 1994, review of School for the Blind, p. 28.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1994, review of School for the Blind, p. 326; December 15, 2000, review of Singing Boy, p. 1712; March 1, 2004, review of Prince Edward, p. 198; June 15, 2007, review of Letter from Point Clear.
Library Journal, February 1, 1995, review of School for the Blind, p. 124; March 15, 2004, Edward B. St. John, review of Prince Edward, p. 107.
Listener, August 30, 1990, review of The Music Room, p. 23.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 8, 1990, Merle Rubin, review of The Music Room, p. 8; May 15, 1994, review of School for the Blind, p. 3.
New Leader, May 1, 2004, "Where School Was Out," p. 36.
Newsweek, May 28, 1990, David Gates, review of The Music Room, p. 74.
New York Review of Books, August 16, 1990, Robert Towers, review of The Music Room, pp. 45-46.
New York Times, April 23, 1990, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Music Room, p. C14; July 12, 1990, D.J.R. Bruckner, "Characters Are Freed by Author, Freeing Himself," p. C17; May 12, 1994, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of School for the Blind, p. C20; February 27, 2001, Michiko Kakutani, "A Man Is Killed, and His Family Dies a Little with Him," p. E8.
New York Times Book Review, May 6, 1990, Josephine Humphreys, review of The Music Room, p. 11; May 22, 1994, Sven Birkets, review of School for the Blind, pp. 12-13; June 5, 1994, review of School for the Blind, p. 28; December 4, 1994, review of School for the Blind, p. 72; March 4, 2001, Allegra Goodman, "Left Behind: Dennis McFarland's Novel Begins with the Murder of a Husband and Father," p. 8; March 3, 2002, Scott Veale, review of Singing Boy, p. 20; September 16, 2007, Richard B. Woodward, "Coastal Disturbances," review of Letter from Point Clear, p. 22.
O, the Oprah Magazine, May, 2004, Francine Prose, "Learning Curves: A Shimmering Novel Set in 1959 Virginia Examines Family—and Racial—fracture," p. 196; August, 2007, "She's Marrying a What? Two Bright, Urbane Siblings Rush to save Their Sister from a Fundamentalist Fate," p. 152.
Publishers Weekly, February 16, 1990, review of The Music Room, p. 67; March 14, 1994, review of School for the Blind, p. 61; February 23, 2004, review of Prince Edward, p. 46; April 23, 2007, review of Letter from Point Clear, p. 26.
Rapport, Number 3, 1994, review of School for the Blind, p. 28.
School Library Journal, July, 2004, Starr E. Smith, review of Prince Edward, p. 131.
Times Literary Supplement, August 31, 1990, Stephen Amidon, review of The Music Room, p. 916; August 26, 1994, review of School for the Blind, p. 21.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), May 13, 1990, review of The Music Room, p. 6; June 5, 1994, Shelby Hearon, review of School for the Blind, p. 7.
USA Today, August 2, 2007, "‘Point Clear’ Mines Murky Depths of the Soul," p. 4.
Wall Street Journal, May 18, 1994, review of School for the Blind, p. A12; March 20, 1997, Merle Rubin, review of A Face at the Window, p. A12.
Washington Post, July 31, 1990, Raj Kamal Jha, "The Literary Detective, on the Trail of Memory," p. D1.
Washington Post Book World, June 19, 1994, review of School for the Blind, p. 5; August 15, 2004, "Unspeakable Acts," p. 12; August 26, 2007, "Paradise Lost," p. 6.