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The Keep by Jennifer Egan

May 22, 2012

The story ofThe Keep is somewhat simple to start with: two cousins, estranged since a not-so-harmless prank went awry when they were teenagers, reunite as adults when one has bought a castle to renovate and create a technology-free retreat. The main character and narrator is Danny, the cousin who played the prank, and has suspicions that his formerly nerdy, now fantastically rich and successful cousin Howie, may be trying to get back on him in some way; since he has no money and has to get away from some sketchy figures, he agrees to go to eastern Europe and help renovate the castle.

Once he is there, some strange things start to happen. I hesitate the describe the events of the novel beyond the set-up, not because it is a cliffhanger plot, or dependent on some late-act twist, but because it is a true joy to discover where The Keep is going as you read it. Like Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, it goes in unexpected directions – not so much through its events, but through the characters it focuses on and the ways the relationship between seemingly unconnected characters are revealed. Like Goon Squad, The Keep subverts novelistic traditions and skirts the expected in small, pleasing ways.

Egan knows how to write characters, too. The way that Danny, formerly the cool cousin, retreats into his own suspicious mind – partially, or close to wholly, because he has no signal on his phone – feels as real as seeing someone you love retreating to paranoia, and as inevitable. Howie’s devolution from a smart, charismatic leader to the scared, lonely teenager he once was does not come off as a condemnation of his success, but rather a realistic portrayal of the way he has built walls around his fear and loneliness. And when the Baroness – the last remnant of the family that owned the family, who refuses to leave the titular keep of the castle – takes an action that will doom all the inhabitants of the castle, it is entirely flippant and pre-meditated, and entirely in line with what has come before.

The Keep is ultimately about new beginnings, regret, and family and friendship – not only the ways that those bonds sustain and enlighten us, but the ways that they undo and damage us. The Keep is lovely and sad, heartfelt and heartbreaking.

This review is crossposted at, home of Cannonball Read IV, a year-long collaborative book reading and reviewing project.


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