I appreciate the complexities between the characters and the accuracy that is revealed in a character book (no real plot suspension) in which the characters do not much change or grow.
I did not like Grace. I found her too "mother-y" (yeah, yeah the missing father called her "someone's mother" when she was just a college girl and she is an elementary school teacher and we are constantly reminded that she wants a baby), even though that is her central core. In the opening scene I thought she treated Perry almost as if he was mentally handicapped and her repeated "now, let me rub you," and "poor baby" selfless maternal babblings were just nauseating.
I was also frequently bothered by the repetitions in the text. There were multiple times in the novel in which Perry's thoughts just circled. I found myself reading several paragraphs (several times throughout) which were essentially the same two sentences repeated ad nauseum.
The beauty in the novel came in the perfect representation of calm and repetition in nature: "He could close his eyes and ski and imagine himself finally stopping and freezing and fossilizing and sprouting needled branches and joining the pines in a perfect communion. One of millions. Each the same. No cold, no hunger, no memories and no fear. An element among elements in the elements." Perry really loses himself (and essentially finds his backbone) during the cross-country ski trip. While there is no real change, there is development; as he takes charge (really for the first time in his life) after Harvey gets them lost and then becomes sick, Perry begins to recognize his own value and ability to make decisions.
As Perry drags near-death Harvey through the woods, I was reminded of Millet's How the Dead Dream (which was not a good book). In turn, that has elements of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Ultimately, we have the same travel through nature in which the main character makes it back to civilization only to realize that real change can only come through oneself. Unlike How the Dead Dream, Harvey comes out alive (the poor guide is not only dead but is left to the river) and unscathed from the experience. It is only Perry who sees the necessity of self-reliance and recognizes that change is not all bad.
When Perry finally emerges, he cannot reach Grace by phone and realizes (much in parallel to Harvey's homecoming on the bus months prior): "There was no answer. Outside, he retrieved his skis and wiped them off and stacked them in a dry spot by the garage. He was depressed. There ought to have been crowds. The high way should have been jammed with well-wishers. He took up the branch that he had used as a pole, gripped it hard and flung it across the highway and into the woods. A clod of wet snow slid off the roof . Inside again, he had another beer." Perry turns to alcohol the same way that the vets do; when reality does not meet expectations after a traumatizing experience it is rather trite to assume a fantastical impression fueled by drink.
Overall, it was not appealing to me. Despite reading Leopold simultaneously, I am not really a "nature" book kind of gal. I think the best parts of this novel are in the natural description and that was mostly lost on me. I can understand why this is a very appealing book to some (in the vein of Heller's The Dog Stars), but personally I was not engaged.