Jane Vandenburgh

Books » The Physics of Sunset

physics-cover-small Published in 1999 to rave reviews, this is a smart, witty, sadly ironic story of neighbors in Berkeley who become lovers. The novel explores the notion that even a doomed passion may have a place in a person’s spiritual life.

When an “active grief suddenly yawns open for no good reason in the middle of her life,” Anna Bell-Shay finds herself inexorably drawn to Alec Baxter, a celebrated architect and husband of a friend of hers. Both Anna and Alex are transplanted Easterners who feel at sea in the upscale, stylishly Bohemian affluence of the 1990s.

Alec is intense, intellectual, Jewish, an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis I. Kahn. He is an advocate of the orderly beauty of buildings, an aesthetic he feels is now regarded as being as quaint as his old-fashioned notions about marital fidelity. He’s unprepared for the violence with which he falls in love with Anna. She is a poet, self-effacing and calm. Her crisp WASP affect hides a soul that is drawn toward nihilism and self destruction.

Against a backdrop of California’s signature disasters—earthquake, flood, urban wildfire—the two explore an unexpected passion that finds them in both spiritual and physical alliance, wanting to risk every part of their careful lives.



“Since her highly praised first novel, Vandenburgh has kept readers waiting a decade for this second effort. A smart, witty, sadly ironic novel about neighbors in Berkeley who become lovers, this is an even more elegantly crafted and perceptive work. Rich with intelligence and feeling….[the affair]…is scaring and poignant. Intensely erotic, its transports are tinges with pain – physical and emotional – and the knowledge of finality….Vandenburgh has created a memorable portrait of fulfilled love and bereavement at its loss. Her compassion infuses this story with insight and grace.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“With her keen eye and acerbic wit, Vandenburgh manages the nearly impossible: She writes fiction that is both wistful and hilarious.” The San Francisco Chronicle

“It was Matisse who said that we must live and bear our burdens with a light heart…. Vandenburgh seems intent on giving lessons in just that. Over and over she shows us the ‘cracked beauty’ of ordinary life: the precious absurdity of life, love, hope, and their opposites.” The Boston Sunday Globe

“[The Physics of Sunset] admirably grapples with the idea that doomed passion can have a place in our lives….A curious mix of …breathtaking erotic defiance and unabashed romantic existentialism – much like adultery itself.” New York’s Newsday