Written by Daniel Torday
I should start by talking about the title. I’ve been walking around for the past two weeks with this book in my hand, and everyone who sees it gives me a look that hovers somewhere in the middle of mild shock, illicit curiosity, and outright envy. After all, I’m not normally one to read books that skew especially blue, at least not in public, and with a title like The Sensualist
, it’s natural to assume that Daniel Torday’s debut novella is perhaps a more literary version of that book about fifty shades of something or other that was all the rage earlier this year.As it turns out, however, the sensualist at the heart of Torday’s novella is about as far removed as possible from anything E.L. James could ever imagine, and we’re all the better for it. Indeed, by focusing on a young Russian immigrant who imagines himself a sensualist in the style of Dmitri Karamazov—i.e., someone who says what he feels when he feels it and does what he likes to do—Torday gives his coming of age novel a center of gravity that speaks directly to the headstrong yet interstitial nature of the teenage years.
The novella tracks the relationship between the aforementioned sensualist, Dmitri Zilber, and narrator Samuel Gerson as they attempt to navigate the choppy waters of young adulthood in the early 1990s. What draws Samuel to Dmitri is the latter’s uncompromising nature. Where Samuel is occasionally cowed by his overbearing gym teacher, Dmitri pays no respect to anyone who hasn’t, in his eyes, earned it. It also helps that Dmitri has a beautiful sister named Yelizaveta, who catches Samuel’s eye and eventually steals heart.In love, or so he believes, with Yelizaveta, Samuel begins to see the world as Dmitri does: as a series of black and white propositions: right and wrong, good and bad, heroes and villains. Consequently, when Samuel learns that Yelizaveta has eyes for a popular jock, the jock becomes a villain from Samuel’s perspective, and much of the remaining narrative revolves around the narrator’s gradual realization that life rarely offers such cut-and-dried distinctions.
Ultimately, it’s this gradual realization that makes The Sensualist so effective. As he struggles to understand his relationships with Yelazaveta and Dmitri, Samuel must also deal with a grandfather whose delusions of persecution put a heavy strain on the family. Likewise, the delusions of grandeur that Samuel’s growing circle of friends tends to entertain place them in increasingly precarious positions. Through it all, what Samuel needs most is to grow comfortable with uncertainty, of occupying the spaces between good and bad, of appreciating (dare I say it?) the shades of gray that complicate human experience—and Torday leads his narrator through the winding maze of young adulthood with the deft and sensitive heart of someone who’s thoroughly explored its many twists and turns.
Thoroughly engaging and beautifully written, The Sensualist stands alongside such works as The Catcher in the Rye and The Basketball Diaries as that rare breed of book that perfectly captures the ambivalence of youth, a delicate balance of absolute certainty and uncertainty held together by the undeniable anxiety of looming adulthood. In short, an excellent read.