For those of us who woefully turned the last page of Crossing California, Adam Langer's masterful debut, The Washington Story offers a gratifying, if not lengthy, reunion with the people and places whose stories so engaged readers the first time around. In this tightly packed sequel, Langer revisits the same West Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago where we first met a fascinating cast of characters, from high schoolers Muley Scott Wills, Jill and Michelle Wasserstrom, and Hillel Levy to movie producers Mel Coleman and Carl "Slappit" Silverman, whose lives continue to intertwine in ways that make this expansive novel both a delight and a challenge to fully absorb.
Like in Crossing California, time and place are as central to the story as the characters themselves. The Washington Story takes place between 1982 and 1987, and follows the political career of Chicago mayor Harold Washington, the Challenger space shuttle disaster, and the changing landscape of both an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Chicago and the world beyond its borders. From a dorm room at Vassar to a hostel in West Berlin, Langer follows his characters across the street and around the globe, observing their behavior with a sharp eye for detail and an understated yet inspired sense of humor that can be unbelievably rewarding at times. ("He would sit alone at Ponderosa, where he would eat chili and pretend to read Jack Kerouac ... though when he would return alone to his hotel room, he would put down The Dharma Bums and pick up the GMAT study guide.") At one point in Jill's college career, she wonders if she could ever be considered prettier than her starlet sister Michelle. Yet according to Langer, it's "Not that she really cared about being pretty; she mostly cared about not being ugly."
Observations like these are what make The Washington Story so much more than a simple coming-of-age tale. Rather, Langer's unpretentious style, coupled with his immense talent for storytelling, rewards readers with a sequel worthy of its predecessor. --Gisele Toueg [via]