Cover Image: Foregone


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A famous and controversial Canadian documentary filmmaker is interviewed at the end of his life by his now famous acolyte. Written in two threads, one during the interview and one in his memories. Well written but the characters left me wanting better.

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Wonderful writing and character development, but sadly this book just was not for me, and I can't seem to pinpoint exactly why it wasn't.

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I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I think this is a very important book with a true message of being true to oneself although I got.a little lost in the plot and am not really sure what the message of it all was supposed to be.

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The premise of Russell Banks’ newest novel is intriguing - notorious filmmaker Leonard Fife has the camera turned on him in the last days of his life. He agrees to allow one of his proteges to make a film about his life. Having made his career in Canada, he’s a presumed US draft-dodger and the objective of Fife’s protege in this expose is capture the secretes of his craft and what has made him the success he has been.

But Fife has his own objective. Insisting that his wife remains present for the duration of his interview, Fife takes his audience through his life before coming to Canada, revealing not the secrets of his craft, but the secrets of his past.

But Fife’s deathbed confessions fall flat. His meandering revelations, while full of people and experiences that are brand new to his current cast, is confusing in its pointlessness.

As a reader, I wanted the purpose of his story to show empathy or regret for the people he abandoned. Instead, it felt like his goal was to punish his contemporaries. For this reason, while I wanted to care about Fife, it was hard.

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Leonard Fife is dying; his last moments are being filmed for a documentary by former students of his. In an attempt to catch the final words of this filmmaker, the team assembles in his home. Perhaps his revelations will explain his motive for defecting to Canada during the Vietnam years. Perhaps he will reveal special techniques used in his own documentaries. Or perhaps their plan is to witness the passing of a human being. His plan, however, is to use this opportunity to speak to Emma, his wife, to reveal events in his early life before he seduced her, a student. What it becomes is a confession of selfish acts, abandonments of all who had cared for him. It is a jumbled story, confusing to his listeners. Emma blames this confabulation on the cancer and treatment that is killing him. Who is successful? The film team or the dying man? Does it matter? What matters is that Russell Banks’ protagonist, whether favorably or unfavorably received, is a character who lingers after the last page.. His choices and actions are difficult to forget.

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“Oh, Canada!”

Leonard Fife is a legendary filmmaker, his searing social commentary an important part of North American history. But now he is dying, and he has a few things he needs to get off his chest before he goes. My thanks go to Net Galley and Harper Collins for the review copy. This book is available to the public March 2, 2021.

Fife is not a lovable character, and now that the end is near, he wants everyone to know it. With the cameras trained on him, darkness all around him but for the spot shining on him as he speaks, he tells his life’s story, and he spares himself nothing. One relationship after another, abandoned without even a goodbye. Children left fatherless. Lives laid waste in his passing. Banks is one of the most brilliant novelists in the U.S., and his word smithery can turn nearly any terrible story into spun gold, but he never pulls punches. His writing is often painful to read, and here it is true in spades, agonizing. By the halfway mark, I am watching the page numbers crawl by and wishing it over.

But of course, there’s a surprise in store.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but in the last half of the book, the question arises as to whether our narrator is reliable. He says he did all of these dreadful things; but did he really…?

The book flows so seamlessly that the difficulty of writing it is not obvious, but here it is: almost the entire thing is one man’s narrative. There’s very little dialogue. It’s not an easy thing to carry off, and yet, this is Banks, and he does.

As his narrative unspools, we are occasionally reminded of his current circumstances by breaks in the action. Once in awhile he is overtaxed and starts to drift off, or worse, and action has to cease immediately while the nurse does important things quickly. Now and then she has to change his bag, or help him onto the toilet and wipe his butt afterward. There’s not a lot of dignity left to the man. But he doesn’t give a…okay, I’m not saying it.

As he insistently recounts his many betrayals of loved ones, ignoring the more suitable, conventional questions that the people filming him thought were going to provide the framework of the film, he makes it crystal clear that it doesn’t bother him in the slightest, what he is doing to his legacy. Torpedo all of it; hell, he’ll be dead before the film opens. What he wants is to be truthful, and the one person he wants to know the truth is Emma, his wife. He knows he cannot be truthful with her unless the camera is rolling, and he won’t proceed unless she is there. RIGHT there. He calls for her many times, making certain she hasn’t left. And through the occasional things she says, we are aware that Emma is not merely his arm candy, not a sycophant that married him for fame, fortune, or prestige; she’s a respected professional in her own field, juggling her own commitments in order to be present here and now for Leonard.

By the time the story ends, my feelings have changed. Leonard is still no angel, but he’s not the sack of excrement I believed him to be, either. The guy I hate at the end is the filmmaker, once Leonard’s protegee, but now wolfishly eager for his mentor to die on camera for him. The nurse orders the camera turned off, but the director calls over the top of her to keep it rolling, the vulture. I want to smack him!

Ultimately we see that death is a final betrayal, a form of abandonment; but Leonard is at peace, because his goal is realized. And this is the story’s title, but I am not going to tell you how that works.

Get the book and read it. All your own sorrows will feel smaller.

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I am an avid reader, not a writer, so reviewing books is new to me. I have not read this author before, I did, however, work with the elderly for over 30 yrs. This was what attracted me to the book about Fife dying of cancer & relating his memories. I know nothing about cinema or film making, that part of the book was interesting. I thought from descriptions there would be more about Fife draft dodging. It is certainly a deep book, but at 60% I'm beginning to skim. The lengthy descriptions do not always make sense, nor are they relevant to Fife's truth telling. I do not know if I can make myself finish. I have read well over 140 books in the last 9 mo., this would be the first I gave up on. That said, it is not a bad book, just not going to be for everyone.

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by Russell Banks

Let me start by saying I am a big fan of Russell Banks. This book is pretty true to form for him. It deals with existential issues of living and dying and what you do with your life between birth and death.

The protagonist, Leo Fife, is dying of cancer after leading a life superficially successful - but which has been mostly based on lies kept secret in order to protect him from having others (most especially his wife, Emma) realizing that he has been a less than exemplary human being. Now in his death throes, Leo wishes to clear the air and be forgiven for what he perceives as his many sins. He wants Emma - the only person he claims to have ever truly loved - to know who the man really is that she has loved for all these years And so, Leo, a documentary film icon, agrees, to allow a film to be made of his last confessions and his dying.

This book is typical Russell Banks fare. It is deep, harsh, depressing - but ultimately illuminating about the human response to looking death in the face. Leo questions himself about his many relationships over his lifetime and and leaves the reader with much to ponder concerning what we each do over the course of a lifetime.

This is not a book for the faint of heart - but for someone looking for a serious read about living and dying, I would highly recommend it.

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I always look forward to a Russell Banks book and this one did not disappoint. His complex, descriptive story was a pleasure to read. highly recommended!

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A famed documentary filmmaker has the camera turned on himself in the final days of his life, a life cut short by terminal illness. Filmed by a small crew using the signature technique he made famous, Leonard Fife is revealing a past that no one knows in its entirety. His one stipulation is that his wife must be present for the whole tale. Memories often don’t flow in an organized manner but Leo is also being given morphine to manage pain which is further muddling his ability to deliver a coherent narrative. His life story is delivered in fits and starts as he is interrupted for delivery of medical support, changing storage devices in the cameras, concerns over his strength and ability to continue, and even Leo’s own disorientation. “Memories, hallucinations, fiction and films, other people’s stories, fantasies. It’s like trying to tie a novel to the authors real life... you can’t do it.”

This is not a happy or even light book in but it is fascinating in every way. It is for that reader who loves a character driven story and wants an almost meta level of detail.

Thank you to @harpercollinsus and
@eccobooks for this #advancereaderscopy.

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Banks, who is himself 80 years old, tells the story of a 77-year-old documentary filmmaker and teacher who is dying of cancer. Former students now have him in front of the camera as they record his life story. Leo Fife’s thoughts are muddled from the cancer, his muddled memory, and pain medications, so he’s not an entirely reliable narrator. At first, the transitioning between the present time and past times seems awkward, but as the story moves forward it becomes more and more understandable. This is an interesting look and aging, failing memory and peeling back the layers to reveal what is true about reputation. Putting the action on April Fools Day seems to have meaning to me, because as I age my memory seems to be playing more April Fools jokes on me.

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A Novel
by Russell Banks
You Are Auto-Approved
General Fiction (Adult) | Literary Fiction
Pub Date 02 Mar 2021 | Archive Date 27 Apr 2021

I could not get interested in this book. It takes a lot for an author to make an interesting book when the main character is so unlikeable. Maybe you will enjoy this book more than I did. Thanks to Ecco and NetGalley for the ARC.


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Foregone by Russell Banks is a highly recommended novel where a dying man shares memories from the early part of his life.

"Except for his memories, all living traces of his past, all the witnesses and evidence, have been erased by years of betrayal, abandonment, divorce, annulment, flight, and exile, eaten by time the way his body is being eaten by cancer."

Canadian American Leonard Fife is dying from cancer in Montreal. Now in his late seventies, he fled American and went to Canada many years earlier to avoid serving in Vietnam. He became a lauded documentary filmmaker in Canada. Now one of his former students, Malcolm MacLeod, is going to film Fife in a last interview about his famous films and how they were made. Fife has another plan. He is going to confess all his secrets and tell the real story of his life to the camera, while speaking to his wife, Emma. In a room of his apartment prepared for the interview, Fife sits under a focused light in his wheelchair while on a morphine drip with his nurse nearby.

Rather than answering questions posed to him by Malcolm, he insists his wife Emma be present so he can confess the true story of his life before they met. "[H]e’s telling his tale to his wife, Emma, because he wants to be known by her, the one person who has said many times over that she loves him for who he is, regardless of who he is. Perhaps most importantly, for the same reason, he’s telling it to himself- because before he dies he wants to be known to himself, regardless of who he is." Then Fife begins his story before he cam to Canada, when he was married, had a son, and wanted to be an author.

As Fife shares his story in the narrative it becomes clear that his memories may not be quite as coherent or cohesive as he thinks they are to his audience and readers will ultimately wonder what memories are just in his mind and what he is actually sharing. At the beginning the memories Fife shares seem realistic and trustworthy to the reader, through Fife's point-of-view, but then his memories begin to flicker to other events at different times and the realism of his recollections is not so straightforward. Fife is dying. We know this from the start and Fife knows that death is imminent. The thoughts in his head that we learn through the confession he wants to share make him a sympathetic character. As the narrative continues it becomes clear that that his illness and medication may result in the fact that Fife is an unreliable narrator.

This is a compelling story of a dying man sharing his memories. In between his story are interjections from his wife, nurse and others in the room. Their discussions make is clear that what they are hearing is not necessarily what we are reading. Can our memories of our past be trusted or are we our best editors? This is a character study of a man that may not be entirely trustworthy, but these are the stories he wanted to share before he died.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.
After publication the review will be posted on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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Russell Banks introduces us to Leo, a documentary film producer who is dying of cancer. He has consented, against the wishes of his long time third wife, to be interviewed by two of his former students, established film makers who learned their craft from Leo. As he is in and out of a morphine haze, his goal seems to be to reveal as yet unknown facts about his well documented life. The reader is mesmerized by the stories of deception (self-deception?) that Fife finally wants his wife (and the world?) to know. but what is real? And why is he orchestrating this performance? A fine novel from Banks who requires some patience and careful reading to fully appreciate it.

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This is not a book that appeals to me at all. I got about 1/3 of the way through it and had to quit. I didn't care for the stream of consciousness style, and could not raise one bit of interest in any of the characters. It might be an appropriate read for a book club.

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Were all draft dodgers this egotistical?
It takes a gifted writer to keep a reader on board with an unlikeable main character, painfully slow (but perfect for its purposes) pacing, and, in an era of "diverse voices", a white straight maile point of view that one would think had already run its course long ago.

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“He tries to say, ‘Forgive me,’ but all he can say is, “Forgone.” He feels himself being pulled as if by the crushing force of gravity into a black hole from which not even light can escape.”

In 1968, when Leonard Fife crossed the Canadian border in the early dawn hours, he claimed to be a draft dodger from the U.S. hoping to begin a new life in Canada. Fifty years later, the 78-year-old Fife, now one of the most respected documentarians in Canada, lies on his deathbed, himself the subject of a documentary being filmed for Canadian television. A film crew, including some of his former students, is there to record Fife’s final words and thoughts for the film world and his fans. Fife is happy they are there, but he has something else entirely in mind for what is about to happen.

Even though Leonard Fife accomplished a lot during his lifetime, he is not at all happy with who he is and how he got it all done. Before he goes, he wants to make certain that Emma, his wife, knows exactly who she has been married to for the last few decades. He hopes she will still love him when he’s done talking, but before he dies, Fife is desperate to tell her all the things he has been hiding from her for so long. And so he looks into the camera and begins to tell the uncensored, unvarnished story of his life.

Or is he really?

Russell Banks’s Foregone is a deeply drawn character study, but even that character is not certain if what he is telling the world about himself is really true. Leo does know that he cannot say any of this to his wife’s face; he cannot look her in the eye and get even this close to the truths he wants her to know. So, in a darkened room, with one light shining on his face, he begins at the beginning, hoping to make it to the end of his story before he draws his last breath.

The problem for Leo is that the film crew is not happy with his rambling monologue, his wife can barely stand to be in the room while all this is happening, and the more he fades, the less sure he is that the stories he is telling really happened - and if they did happen, whether or not it was even him they happened to.

Bottom Line: Foregone is one of those books that demand a good bit of patience from the reader. It is a book in which readers are likely to dislike just about every featured character (the exception being Leo’s nurse and - mostly - his wife Emma). It is not filled with a lot of action despite the fact that it is the coming-of-age story of a man who ran from every problem he got himself into, abandoning friends and loved ones all the while. It’s a book about despair and giving up, a book about a man who, at the end of his life, doesn’t seem to like himself very much. All of that said, Leo Fife is a man and a character I will not soon forget. It is not important that I like him or not; I know him now.

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I’m judging a 2020 fiction contest. It’d be generous to call what I’m doing upon my first cursory glance—reading. I also don’t take this task lightly. As a fellow writer and lover of words and books, I took this position—in hopes of being a good literary citizen. My heart aches for all the writers who have a debut at this time. What I can share now is the thing that held my attention and got this book from the perspective pile into the read further pile.

“They pass the closed door to the adjacent bedroom that Emma has used for her office and for sleeping since Fife started staying awake all night with the sweats and chills. He wonders if she’s in there now. Hiding from Malcolm and his film crew. Hiding from her husband’s sickness. His dying.
If he could, he’d hide, too. He asks Renée again to tell him why he agreed to this.”
Banks is a master storyteller and I look forward to everything he writes. This novel does not disappoint my already ridiculously high expectations.

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Russell Banks has told the story of a famous and highly regarded cinematographer on his deathbed, who insists on baring his soul to his wife of 40 years by telling All in front of a film crew. Fife himself is the unreliable narrator, recounting his life from young adulthood through his emigration to Canada, not quite reaching his success as liberal Canadian film maker. As he adds more and more betrayals and stories of character weakness to his life story, he asserts that his love for his wife can only be valid if she knows the whole truth about him. No matter the pain it causes her, his dying wish is that she hear all the sordid details of his failings, although readers have cause to wonder if his meanderings are partly the product of his medications. This is a downward spiral in reverse that sometimes feels self-indulgent -- if not on the part of the author, then certainly for the character of Fife.

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Bank's novels are more than story, and this one is no exception. A man is dying and is asked to do one last interview where he is supposed to continue to reveal his creative genius. He would rather tell his own story, which is a combination of fact, fiction, wish fulfillment, and faulty memory. We don't really know how he lived his life, we only know what he thinks he remembers, and believes he must confess. This is a sad and broken man, and if his backstory wasn't a brilliant description of the hills, rivers and roads of Boston, New Hampshire and Vermont of my childhood, I wouldn't have kept reading to the end.

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