I added Patrick Somerville’s The Cradle, published in 2009, to my reading list after I came across his response to a negative review for his recent novel, This Bright River. His response got me thinking about whether there is such a thing as bad publicity. In my post, Negative Book Reviews: Is There Such a Thing as Bad Publicity, I concluded that it depends on a variety of factors. The bad publicity for This Bright River—and Somerville’s response to it—turned out to be good in that it (1) introduced me to an author I had never heard of before; and (2) it piqued my interest in Somerville’s The Cradle, which had received good reviews.
When I received The Cradle in paperback form instead of my usual ebook, my first reaction was: It’s short. It’s only 197 pages (counting only the numbered ones), much shorter than most of the traditionally published books I’ve read in the contemporary fiction or literary fiction genre. After cracking the book open, my next reaction was: That’s a lot of filler. The first six unnumbered pages make the book appear a little longer than it is. The pages contain reviews ranging from The New York Times’ Janet Maslin to authors I don’t know. The praise The Cradle received is impressive, but seeing it displayed on the first six pages of the book and the back cover, driving up the production cost of each book, felt unnecessary and over-indulgent, a mere ploy (by the publisher) to remind me of how much I should like the book now that I’ve already purchased it (online). It reminded me of a scene in the movie Dave (1993), when Dave learns that the government is spending money to make drivers feel better about the cars they already own. The six pages of reviews would make more sense for those browsing novels in a bookstore, where they can actually leaf through the book and use the reviews as a factor in their purchasing decisions.
The reviews chosen for inclusion in the book all boil down to one message: The Cradle is an awesome novel.
And it is. I wholeheartedly agree with the praise this book received.
This short and sweet novel begins with an odd request from Matthew Bishop’s pregnant wife, Marissa:
The cradle for the coming baby had to be the cradle she’s been rocked in as a child; not only the cradle she’d been rocked in but the cradle that was upstairs in her bedroom when she was fifteen and her mother… looked at Marissa, took the keys, walked out the door, this time permanently. Ten days later there’d been a robbery at the house… The cradle was taken that night.
The cradle, with a dark stain and a floral pattern, was rumored to be from the Civil War. Matt ultimately agrees to search for it, but wonders, “who used such things, if they even existed, for actual children?”
Exactly! I found myself thinking this very same thought, cringing at the idea of putting a baby in a Civil War-era cradle. As a lawyer and as a parent, I believe that the world is a safer place today than it was in the 1860s as a result of products liability lawsuits and regulation. The current federal safety standards for cribs went into effect on June 28, 2011, and included several new requirements, including a prohibition on drop-side cribs. More recently, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has approved a new rule on play yards in response to “2,100 incidents with play yards reported to CPSC, including 60 fatalities and 170 injuries, between November 2007 and December 2011.” I would never, ever put my child in a crib, cradle, play yard, or bassinet that didn’t meet current safety standards, even if the crib has supposedly withstood the test of time and rocked generations of infants.
But Somerville’s novel is not really about the cradle. It’s about the journey finding it, what else Matt finds and learns along the way, and the effects on his family. The novel consists of two intertwined stories: Matt’s quest for the cradle in the late ‘90s, and, around ten years later, a mother’s struggle with the memories and feelings her son Adam’s tour of duty in Iraq stirs up.
The Cradle is an elegant story that lingered with me; I found myself thinking about the plot and the characters long after I had completed the book. The best part is that the hopeful ending felt complete without tying all of the strands of the story together too neatly. Thus, my own imagination was able to take these characters to what could have been the next logical steps in their lives, resulting in a more interactive reading experience and a more fulfilling novel to read. Bravo, Mr. Somerville.