Twenty years after a terrifying childhood prank taken too far, cousins Danny and Howie meet again in Eastern Europe to renovate a crumbling medieval castle. The tables are now turned: the once-scrawny, awkward Howie — a childhood victim of his cousins’ bullying — is now a handsome millionaire, while Danny is thirty-something NYC hipster with a questionable past. Howie is now intent on turning the castle into a high-end, technology-free, spiritual retreat; he reaches out to his wayward cousin in part to patch up the rift stemming from that childhood event that changed both their lives.
Danny immediately hates it there, especially since there’s no cell phone reception. Everything is old and unsettling, and being around Howie so much dredges up old memories of what Danny did to him when they were younger. Howie, however, doesn’t even bring up the past; he’s freakishly positive about everything in life and insists that Danny has a special something, a magical intuition that will lead this fledgling business venture in the right direction. And he’s right. Skeptical though Danny may be, he knows that for everything to succeed, the need to get into the highest, most secure part of the castle: the keep. The problem is that the ancient matriarch of the family who owned the castle still lives there and has no intention of ever leaving; her family had owned the castle for centuries.
And here, unfortunately, is where the novel begins to unravel in a way that it never fully recovers from.
People are probably more familiar with Jennifer Egan — and her love of multiple narrators — from her prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, where her technique positively shines. One can see her experimenting with this form of writing in The Keep. If she had stuck to Howie and Danny, the narrative might have fared a little better. Instead, it goes all over the place, shifting narrators and time frames, and introducing side plots and twists that really did not need to be added. It was just too much. I listened to this on audiobook, which has two different narrators, so it was easier tell when shifts happened. Honestly, if I’d read the print version, I probably would have been extremely frustrated; as it was, I had a hard time keeping up with parts of the audiobook.
I would have loved it if Egan had stuck to focusing on the tenuous bond between Howie and Danny. The keep was an interesting vehicle for a clautrophobic environment and served as an interesting (albeit obvious) metaphor for impenetrable forces and last stands. Instead, Egan gives Howie’s assistant his own point of view and adds in a jarring plot involving a young woman who teaches creative writing at a prison. I won’t give that part away, but I will say that once Egan revealed how all of this fit together, I was not amused.
My overall impression was “meh.” If you’re a big Egan fan, read it. It’s interesting to see how her work develops over time. But if you’re not invested in Egan’s work, it’s probably safe to skip it. There are better Egan books to read (like Goon Squad).
The Keep was released in 2006 by Anchor Books, an imprint of Random House. I listened to the audiobook version.