I've always looked forward to new novels from Jane Hamilton, but I was particularly interested in "The Short History of a Prince." I'd heard it was about a young aspirant to the rigorous, baffling, self-contained world of ballet, a promising setup.
The "prince" of the novel, however, turns out to be Walter McCloud, 38 as the book opens and with his dancing years long behind him. Returning to Wisconsin after an aimless decade or so in New York City, he intends to teach English to the freshmen of Otten High, not far from his family's place at Lake Margaret. The story alternates between the present, in which Walter must figure out what the hell he wants to do with the rest of his life, and 1972-73, the year he gave up dancing and his older brother Daniel died of cancer.
Walter is an appealing character: smart, energetic and determined. Gay and single, a generous snob, he is prone to fits of despair but is more or less at peace with himself. Perhaps, in fact, he's too good to be true -- as though the author, writing so closely from the point of view of someone from a minority group of which she is not a member, felt compelled to give him too much benefit of the doubt. Yet at least he is reasonably complicated, as many of the other characters in this book (the dying brother, the witchy aunt with the heart of gold, the cruel and beautiful first love) are not.
There is some ballet in the novel, but Hamilton's emphasis is on the more familiar topics of love and loss and coming to terms with the past. The novel treats these subjects intelligently, but there's more meditation here than drama. The questions of whether Walter's family will lose Lake Margaret, whether Walter will have enough courage to pursue a liaison with a handsome poet, whether or not he'll win over his seventh-period English class, are not pressing enough to pull you through. The family place is often the setting, and while the rambling house and sparkling water sustain Walter, Lake Margaret is not conveyed sufficiently evocatively to do the same for us.
What does sustain us is Walter's considerable energy, and his appealing sensibility. Each page is interesting insofar as his thoughts and perceptions are interesting -- sometimes less, often more. The most memorable parts are when he dances, particularly his tragicomic stint as the Prince in the Rockford Ballet's amateurish production of the Nutcracker. It is in moments like these, when Walter's life is at its most unfamiliar, that the book comes most compellingly to life.