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This novel, based on the true story of the Collyer brothers, found dead in their Harlem brownstone amid tons of debris in 1947, is an exceptional achievement by one of the finest writers of our age. This story of two brothers from a prominent New York family, each dealing with his own profound impairment, is a not so subtle metaphor for human existence and its ultimate conclusions.
Doctorow changes the time frame of their lives, and fills in the sketchy story with his own elaborations. After the two experience profound tragedy early in life, the narrative takes them through most of the century with its wars, fads, and foibles. They meet and interact with a parade of characters, while leading an increasingly cloistered life in the inherited Fifth Avenue manse. The slow deterioration of the house roughly coincides with that of the brothers' physical and mental states. Each is increasingly closed in, both physically and psychologically.
The book is immensely engrossing and subtly moving. For lovers of good literature this is that rare breed of novel that is both literate and captivating. While moving the reader through the highs and lows of the brothers' lives, it takes one on an intellectual journey that is both edifying as well as frightening. The final paragraph is one of the most chilling I have ever read.
This relatively short novel is indeed well worth one's time.