At 640 pages, Kavalier and Clay is a book that commands your time and, if you're up for it, your attention. For me, the first 425 pages read as five-star material. Then Chabon had to go to the South Pole (literally) and well...from there, (to borrow a phrase from my grandmother) he just got "loosey goosey" with his plot. It's why I ended the book still a big fan, but not as sold as I wanted to be.
Kavalier and Clay is the 1930s-era story of two cousins, Brooklyn-born Sammy Clay and his Czech cousin, Joe Kavalier. Joe has escaped the Jewish massacre of World War II (how he gets to America is a far-fetched but fascinating plotline featuring a Golum in a coffin) but pines for his family that remains in Prague. Sam is scrawny (with legs crippled by polio) but tries to make up for his diminutive status with big dreams of making a name for himself in the burgeoning comic book industry.
Magic happens when his imagination intersects with Joe's artistic talent, leading them to create the great Escapist, a character that comes to define not just their professional careers, but the overall theme of the book. Shortly after their partnership takes off, Kavalier meets and falls for the enigmatic Rosa Saks (meeting her for the second time at a party where he saves Salvador Dali from dying...I loved that plot point) and it is their on-and-off relationship that kept me reading to the end.
I finished Kavalier and Clay conflicted, because there were so many things I loved about it and yet, the parts that tripped me up, really tripped me up (to touch vaguely (but a bit spoilerish) on a few-- the South Pole excursion, the bungee jump atop the Empire State Building, how that coffin with the pile of Golum dirt inside it (WAS that what it was?) made it to their suburb in Queens and whether or not the names on the card at the end meant Sam stayed or if the Clay of "Kavalier & Clay" was referring to Rosa....) Sigh...so many questions unanswered. But I suppose the fact I'm still asking them means this book is as great a read as any I've given four stars on here.
A few lines I loved (so often with this novel, I'd read a particular sentence and think of how wicked talented Chabon is with his words):
Pg. 315: "His ribs no longer stuck out, and his skinny little-boy's behind had taken on a manlier heft. It was as if, she thought, he had been engaged in a process of transferring himself from Czechoslovakia to America, from Prague to New York, a little at a time, and every day there was more of him on this side of the ocean."
A beautiful scene where Joe thinks about his love for Rosa (pg. 324): "The two dozen commonplace childhood photographs—snowsuit, pony, tennis racket, looming fender of a Dodge—were an inexhaustible source of wonder for him, at her having existed before he met her, and of sadness for his possessing nothing of the ten million minutes of that black-and-white scallop-edged existence save these few proofs."
On Sam's return to comics after he fails at other dreams (pg 547): "He allowed the world to wind him in the final set of chains, and climbed, once and for all, into the cabinet of mysteries that was the life of an ordinary man."
Beautifully crafted narrative of an aspect of Rosa's physical beauty Joe's forgotten (pg. 569): "He had thought of Rosa countless times over the years of his flight, but somehow, courting or embracing her in his memory, he had neglected to dab in the freckles with which she was so prodigiously stippled, and now he was startled by their profusion. They emerged and faded against her skin with the inscrutable cadence of stars on the night sky. They invited the touch of fingers as painfully as the nap of velvet or the shimmer of a piece of watered silk."