Jane Hamilton reads a passage from her new novel where a frantic mother pleads with her teen son to fix the family computer. The boy secretly knows his married Mom is having an e-mail affair and delays the simple repair while the woman “breathed as if she were running and running and not simply standing still.”
It’s a funny scene, dark and wry, one of many in Hamilton’s delightfully odd book “Disobedience.”
The 120 or so Hamilton fans who packed Canterbury Booksellers Cafe Inn on Monday night react to it as if the southeastern Wisconsin author were the headliner at the nearby Funny Business comedy club.
“Thank you for laughing,” Hamilton tells the crowd, some of whom wedged themselves into the reading area by sitting on the floor against book shelves.
“Most reviews of this book don’t mention it’s funny. That’s peculiar to me. The book amuses me. Your laughter has given me hope.”
“Disobedience’s” tale – far removed from her hard-bitten, Oprah selections, “The Book of Ruth” and “A Map of the World” – also has room for a supporting cast that includes a girl, 13, who is a Civil War reenactor, and a women’s book club whose members chat about their lives rather than lit.
Hamilton, 43, braced her own family for “Disobedience’s” story, narrated by a teen boy. After all, Hamilton is married with a son, who’s 15, and a daughter, 13.
“I told my son what this was about because I knew that people would jump to the conclusion that I was writing about myself. I also wanted him to know this boy is nothing like him,” she said in an interview before her Canterbury appearance.
“My daughter asked what it was about. I said, `A son discovers that his mother is having an affair by reading her e-mail.’ She said (loudly), `And the point is . . .’ ”
Hamilton said she planned to write about a woman’s infidelity before adding the e-mail element.
“People have made much of the fact that it’s so modern to have e-mail in a novel. But it really is just a device the way other novels use letters. I think it’s a very old-fashioned book.”
Um . . . it’s old-fashioned to send verbal bouquets through a modem several times daily?
“E-mail can be more obsessive more quickly and romance can progress faster,” Hamilton said. “But the basic elements are not that different from letters.”
Hamilton has lived on an apple farm in tiny Rochester, 23 miles west of Racine, since 1979. A native of suburban Chicago (Oak Park) and a graduate of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., she headed toward a publishing company job in New York City when she stopped in rural Wisconsin to visit a friend’s apple orchard.
A three-week stay turned into months. She met her husband, Madison native Bob Willard, and declined the New York publishing job. It became a blessing in disguise for her writing.
“I never regretted it. I was not equipped to deal with life in the real world. I was 23 years old. I had $200 to go to New York City,” Hamilton said.
“It was good for me to be in my own little bubble. I was told it was hard to get published so I wrote for myself. I didn’t tell anybody what I was doing. You know, I didn’t get the New York Times Book Review.”
At age 24, she began the critically acclaimed “The Book of Ruth,” which was published several years later in 1988.
Oprah Winfrey made “Book of Ruth” one of her first Oprah Book Club selections in September 1996. As a result, “Book of Ruth’s” sales soared from 85,000 copies to nearly one million.
In spring 1999, Oprah picked Hamilton’s 1994 novel “A Map of the World,” creating another book-buying frenzy.
“I’m really grateful,” Hamilton said. “She has provided me with the time and peace to work.”
Oprah’s support also created a large built-in audience for Hamilton’s writing, including the new “Disobedience,” which has caused producers to mull purchasing its film rights.
Hamilton admitted feeling additional pressure as she wrote “Disobedience.”
“I’m more aware of disappointing people,” she said.
So why now, someone asked at Canterbury during Hamilton’s question-and-answer session, did Hamilton add humor to her writing?
“At a certain point as you get older,” Hamilton said, “life becomes either really desperate or just funnier.”