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An Unfinished Season: A Novel

"It's always a pleasure to read Just's prose — crisp and intelligent, animated by dry humor and by a realism that is too humane to be cynical. This novel, with its resonant questions about the class divisions that most Americans refuse to acknowledge, is one of his most trenchant works to date." — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Supple as ever, Just takes coming-of-age material and puts his distinctive stamp on it . . . One of Just's best works: stuffed with surprises, sparkling with insights." — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

About the Book

"Ward Just writes the kind of books they say no one writes anymore: smart, well-crafted narratives — wise to the ways of the world — that use fiction to show us how we live," wrote Joseph Kanon in the Los Angeles Times. An Unfinished Season is quintessential Ward Just and is being embraced by critics and booksellers across the country. In this new novel he brings us into the secret, shadow life that inhabits politics, business, family, and love in 1950s Chicago.

In the small town of Quarterday, half a day's ride from Chicago, nineteen-year-old Wilson Ravan watches as his father, who runs a printing business, fends off workers threatening to strike. A gruff and private man eager to maintain his power, Teddy Ravan vows not to budge, despite hearing that Communists are behind the strike and receiving threatening phone calls at home. To protect himself and his family he borrows a gun, which he carries even after the strike ends.

Meanwhile, Wils, planning to attend the University of Chicago in the fall, gets a summer job at a Chicago newspaper and suddenly finds himself straddling three worlds — that of the working-class reporters eager to expose local corruption, of the glamorous debutante parties on the North Shore where he spends his nights, and of the burgeoning cold war between his parents in Quarterday. Most important, he meets Aurora Brule, the daughter of a renowned psychiatrist with a disturbing past in World War II. Wils and Aurora fall in love, but their happiness is cut short by a tragedy in the Brule family and by the unraveling of old secrets that make Wils question everything he once thought he knew.

An Unfinished Season is a subtle, probing portrait of a time when government suspicion and corruption seeped into family life. It is also a beautifully atmospheric depiction of a place and a searing story of lives on the brink of transformation.

Ward Just is the author of thirteen previous novels, including the National Book Award finalist Echo House. Just was awarded the 2001 James Fenimore Cooper Prize of the Society of American Historians and was a 1999 PEN/Hemingway finalist for his novel A Dangerous Friend. Just and his wife, Sarah Catchpole, divide their time between Martha's Vineyard and Europe. He was recently a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.

A Conversation with Ward Just

Q) Why did you set An Unfinished Season in the 1950s?

A) The modern world was not yet present. It lay over the horizon, its contours not visible, though the portents were there: the unfinished business of the Korean War, the McCarthy scourge, institutionalized racism, Soviet tyranny, and the economic boom were mixed with memories of the Great Depression and the defeat of the Germans and Japanese. In short, a period of pause — base camp before the long climb ahead.

Q) And why Chicago?

A) Chicago belonged to the old world — its political corruption, its gangsters, the mob and the machine, the city that wasn't ready for reform, always on the make, a city of syncopation where everything had a price. Its celebrated renaissance was not even a gleam in Mayor Richard J. Daley's eyes. If you lived in Chicago, or even on its margins, you believed you knew how the world worked. Stability, a quality midwesterners like to think is their own special virtue, carried a heavy price. I think of Chicago as a character in the novel no less than the principals, young Wils and Aurora.

Q) And how did the world work in Chicago in 1953?

A) A question of who did the talking and who did the listening. Who set the rules and how vigorously the rules were enforced, and by whom. What you could get away with and what you couldn't, and the penalties all around. Specifically: Where did your loyalties lie? And what happened when your deepest instincts were at odds with your lover's? An unfinished season happened.

Q) Is this novel autobiographical?

A) All novels are to some degree autobiographical. I can't think of an exception. I'm certain Homer's "wine-dark sea" came from a contemplative moment at dusk on an Aegean beach. In my teens I grew up on the grounds of a golf course north of Chicago. The autobiographical element pretty much begins and ends there.

Q) Your previous five novels have been set variously in Berlin, Vietnam, Paris, and Washington. What drew you back home?

A) I think of An Unfinished Season as the third book in an Illinois cycle that began with A Family Trust (1978) and Jack Gance (1989). The novels describe a world that has all but vanished, but there are echoes still, and the echoes are what's important. That world is the pentimento of this one.

Praise for Ward Just's Previous Books

The Weather in Berlin

"Ward Just is an American novelist of the first rank, and while his reputation is substantial, it comes nowhere near suggesting the scale of his talent and the fact that his work is so far beyond most other novelists' as to put him in another, more lofty realm altogether . . . [The Weather in Berlin] is a lovely book, at once compelling and profound as it explores the nature of the past and how it affects the future, how one is attached to other people, particularly to one's father, and how memory exists as a constant companion." — Craig Nova, Baltimore Sun

"Every so often, a well-established, respected novelist vaults to a new level, demonstrating a mastery of craft that startles even his fans. That's what Ward Just has done in his thirteenth novel, The Weather in Berlin." — Andrew Nagorski, Newsweek

"The Weather in Berlin is an elegantly written, strikingly intelligent novel, as knowing about movies, the German enigma, and the vagaries of fame as it is about matters of the heart." — Dan Cryer, New York Newsday

"A quiet, meditative book . . . It's told in the author's crystal-clear, distilled style: Just, a former journalist who has metamorphosed into a virtuoso novelist . . . never uses two words when one, just the right one, will do . . . The Weather in Berlin quietly reinforces a conviction of how so many of our current troubles, from the mundane stuff of trade disputes to the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are rooted in Europe's bloody history." — Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times

"Searing . . . Just understands the intricate systems at work — power struggles, historical precedent, social implications — in roiling spots such as modern Germany . . . Just's prose is precise and smooth, a BMW cruising the autobahn. And the story is a timeless one of an aging artist hoping to stir up his creative juices." — Greg Lalas, Boston Magazine

"Just is a master at navigating the crosscurrents of real dialogue, the jagged non sequiturs that mark conversation. The narrative seems to move in place, full of evocative implications that draw us on without our knowing entirely where we're going . . . Just has his own inimitable things to say about reawakening a creative life. And he says them here in an atmospheric novel that's mysteriously alluring." — Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

"Ambitiously complex . . . [The Weather in Berlin] has strong components to recommend it . . . A worthy effort, brimming with promising ideas and possibilities . . . [Just is] one of our best and most far-reaching novelists." — Michael Upchurch, Chicago Tribune

Echo House

"Ward Just knows the secret calculus of the human heart." — Boston Globe

"Just's reputation for shrewd and worldly fiction has gained momentum with each book." — Booklist

"He has earned a place on the shelf just below Edith Wharton and Henry James." — Newsweek

"One of the most astute writers of American fiction." — New York Times Book Review

"Masterpieces of balance, focus, and hidden order . . . his stories put him in the category reserved for writers who work far beyond the fashions of the times." — Chicago Tribune

"A spellbinding experience for anyone who has lived within the savage, weird, occasionally wonderful world of 'real' presidential politics, Echo House is Ward Just's own triumph, one of those truly rare books that tempt a nonstop reading." — Leonard Garment, author of Crazy Rhythm

A Dangerous Friend

"A literary triumph that transcends its war story . . . Its greatness will stand the test of time." — San Francisco Chronicle

"[An] extraordinary new novel . . . [Ward Just brings] Vietnam alive." — New York Times

"There comes a moment . . . when a reader is brought up short by how spectacularly well Ward Just writes fiction . . . Its effect is nearly explosive." — Boston Globe

"A Dangerous Friend contains Just's most thoughtfully resonant prose — it's beautifully written — and its characterizations are unforgettable in their precision and accuracy. It's a meditation about the Vietnam War as well as an urgent message for the present day. Sometimes a novel of ideas can break your heart, and this is one of them." — Robert Stone

"The evil of banality is revisited in this wise, vibrant novel of Vietnam. Lest we forget, Ward Just portrays — without insistence or sententiousness — excruciating knowingness, and huge incomprehension; the armed presence, and the absence of humility and humanity. This is a story, too, and so well told, of a man's discovery of his true affinities, loyalties, and affections. Witty, thoughtful, thrilling." — Shirley Hazzard

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