Jack Gorse/Ronan the protagonist of Pamela Erens’s smashing debut novel, The Understory, is a man obsessed: with twins, with vegetation, with books, with his routine, and with a kind-hearted architect named Patrick. He is also searching, it seems, for that other part of himself—the other half of himself. At one point, he hopes he will find that other within Patrick, but really that other is within him:

“I imagine that I am a conjoined creature; two souls wrapped into one, and after a while this thought lulls me to sleep.”

Basically, he is unwittingly his own twin—and so gives himself two names. Everything is connected in Jack’s world and there are no randomness of events something he’s believed since childhood:

“Every plant—everything, I was suddenly sure—was related, everything was part of some larger group, some bigger whole.”

In keeping with the twin-ness of things, the thread of connection, the book is told in interweaving chapters of past and present as we follow Jack through his troubles of the not so distant past (the events leading up to his eviction), his troubles of the present (he is in hiding in a Buddhist monastery in Vermont and they are wary of him), and his overarching troubles (the outcome of his involvement with Patrick).

Despite his odd (and sometimes scary) behavior, Jack will win you over. You will wish him well. You will want him not to fail. And in the end, when you know his dark secrets and what horrible things he has done, you will hope that he will have a brighter tomorrow.

In short: a masterful, graceful book that will often leave you breathless. Read it.

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