Michael Ondaatje


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Divisadero Summary

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Divisadero is a 2007 novel by the Sri Lankan-Canadian author Michael Ondaatje. It follows Anna and her adoptive siblings Claire and Coop from their troubled childhood in California to their divergent later lives. Claire becomes a lawyer and Coop a professional gambler: eventually, Claire helps reconcile Coop with their father. Meanwhile, Anna researches the life of First World War-era French poet Lucien Segura: his story forms the final section of the novel.

The first of the novel’s three parts is set in Northern California in the 1970s. Teenaged Anna lives with her widowed father on a remote farm in Gold Rush country. She has two adopted siblings. Her father brought Claire back from the hospital along with Anna, after Anna’s mother died in childbirth: “It was a field hospital on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, and to put it brutally, they owed him a wife, they owed him something.” Anna and Claire are raised as twins. Meanwhile, her adopted brother Coop is treated more like a hired hand: he was brought “to stay and work on the farm” after his parents were brutally murdered (by their own hired hand).

Anna and Coop begin a sexual affair. One day their father catches them in flagrante delicto and begins to viciously beat Coop. Realizing that her father is going to kill her lover, Anna attacks him, wounding him grievously. He drives away with her, but she escapes at a gas station and flees, never to return. Meanwhile, Coop is nursed back to health by Claire: when he has recovered he too flees.

Part 2 finds the adult Anna living under an assumed name in a farmhouse in France, where she is researching the life of the French poet Lucien Segura. Busying herself in archives, “where art meets life in secret,” she tries to uncover the secrets of Segura, who lived and worked in Dému, France. “His voice with the wound in it kept haunting me,” Anna explains. Anna begins an affair with a neighbor, Rafael, who, as a child, knew the aging Segura.

Meanwhile, Claire is working for a lawyer in the Pubic Defender’s Office in San Francisco. On weekends, she goes out to the farm to see her father, who refuses to talk about the break-up of their family. On every visit, Claire rides her horse into the wild landscape: “She risked everything out there.”

Coop is a professional gambler—that is, a con artist. Ondaatje leads us through Coop’s brilliant sting operation in detail, even laying out the poker hands on the page. With his winnings, Coop goes on the run, falling in with a beautiful heroin addict named Bridget. Bridget turns out to be in debt to a dangerous group of professional gamblers who have been looking for Coop. His sting is famous, and they want him to perform it for them. When Coop refuses, he is once again beaten almost to death.

Once again, it is Claire who finds him. She is in Lake Tahoe on an investigative project for her employer. In a nightclub, she takes a pill: during the comedown, she stumbles on Coop and rescues him. Suffering from profound memory loss after his beating, he mistakes her for Anna.

Claire takes Coop back to the farm to reconcile with his adoptive father, and to begin putting back together his shattered memory.

The third part of the novel tells the life-story of Lucien Segura. As a teenager, he reads to his illiterate neighbor Marie-Neige, the young bride of an older man. One day the future poet is blinded in one eye when a dog bursts through a pane of glass in front of him. Marie-Neige learns to read so she can read aloud to him.

Through their shared love of literature (Dumas in particular), Lucien and Marie-Neige fall in love, although they cannot consummate their passion under the eye of her husband, Roman.

Lucien moves away, marries another woman, and becomes a famous poet. He remains tortured by the loss of Marie-Neige, to the point that he abandons his career and identity and begins writing popular fiction about a character based on his lost love. When the war breaks out, Lucien is sent to the Front. He learns that Roman has left Marie-Neige; on a furlough, he visits her, and they consummate their love.

Later, he learns that she is dying of diphtheria (possibly infected by him). He hurries across the shattered ruins of northern France to see her, but when he reaches her, she no longer recognizes him, taking him for her husband.

Divisadero is the fifth novel by Ondaatje, a former winner of the Governor General’s Award, the Booker Prize, and the Prix Médicis étranger, and best known for his book The English Patient. Divisadero was warmly received by critics, who praised its “strange beauty” (Guardian). Some reviewers noted, “The brokenness of Ondaatje’s tale can be frustrating” (New York Times)