Patrick Gale is an original--at once very old-fashioned and very modern. Not for nothing has he been called "the Barbara Pym of the liberated set." In his warm, subversive comedies, characters of all sexual identities and ambiguities dance through endless configurations and marvelously contrived plots. And this English author's eighth novel, Tree Surgery for Beginners, is as full of coincidence and pleasurable surprise as ever. It begins, however, with a shock to the reader's system: arborist Lawrence Frost returns home after a night in his beloved Wumpett Woods to signs of great violence. Worse, he himself is the culprit, having beaten his wife in a jealous rage. Now Bonnie has, quite sensibly, fled with their daughter, Lucy--but even as our tree surgeon determines to make things right, a burnt, dismembered body that could well be Bonnie's turns up.
As Gale paints in Lawrence's background, he also provides strong, instant portraits of his mother, Dora; her twin brother, Darius; his father-in-law, and their town. Barrowcester (pronounced "Brewster") is alas a place where Lawrence will never again be at home--even after mother and child turn up safe. Not to worry, though, since the author next sends him and Darius on a rollicking Caribbean cruise. As constraints are loosened all around--on the Paulina, in the English provinces, and in Chicago, where Bonnie and Lucy end up--Lawrence cannot escape his emotional limbo. But then Lala, a chanteuse of a certain age and uncertain gender, captivates him:
He could not remember having his thoughts so jangled by the suggestiveness of a clothed female form since he fell in love with his French teacher at ten and began to receive even poorer marks than usual. Gale obviously adores his characters--including the possible transsexuals, definite murderers, and religious zealots--as much as he relishes working out his Shakespearean twists. (Tree Surgery for Beginners features the cameo appearance of a marauding but perhaps indecisive tiger.) Readers will be divided into those who delight in watching the author weave his people and plot strands together, elevating love over propriety, and those who consider him absolutely shameless. Few, however, can object to Gale's irreverent, bawdy vision of possibility and acceptance. --Kerry Fried