‘The past is an unknown pool, its cool brim the border where memory begins.’ In other words, in trying to know the past, you may risk drowning in it. Jonathan Anthony, the narrator and protagonist of Morgan McCarthy’s The Other Half of Me, instead makes the decision to build a fence around the past and walk away.
Jonathan and his sister, Theo, were raised by their alcoholic and emotionally absent mother. Having never found comfort or indulgence for his emotions in childhood, Jonathan equates strength with the absence of feeling. There’s a secret surrounding the circumstances of his father’s death, but probing such a mystery would mean leaving the safe sphere of the merely intellectual. Jonathan ignores the clues and instead takes his grandmother, Eve, as a role model.
Eve is a famous former U.S. congresswoman and current tycoon philanthropist. “What good can the past do?” she asks when questioned about Jonathan and Theo’s father. The more permeable Theo, on the other hand, feels everything, and cannot let go of the secrets that she somehow knows are spackled away behind Eve’s charismatic persona. Theo’s sensitivity makes her a burden both beloved and resented by Jonathan, who has had to take care of her most of his life.
The Other Half of Me begins in a setting we think we know: Evendon, a gloomy 15th century manor-house, looming in the background like a malevolent Manderley. Jonathan and Theo explore the grounds unsupervised and un-missed by any caring adult, discovering a secluded pool and a tree carved with their parents’ initials: “like a marker, or the lamppost of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” At this point in the story, Eve’s presence is restricted to portraits of herself at different ages, hung throughout the house. To Theo and Jonathan, she is Snow White, or a good witch. She is said to have come once to restore order to Evendon when it needed it, and the children wonder from time to time whether she will do so again. This eerie sense of impending revelation creates a lovely suspense for the first few chapters of the novel.
When Eve, summoned by Jonathan and Theo’s mother’s attempted suicide, finally arrives, her effect is, ironically, to dispel any sense of magic or mystery that hangs about Evendon—at least for Jonathan. Finally, with an adult who will assume responsibility for them all, he is freed of his perceived need to be responsible for anyone. Jonathan embarks on a successful college and then architectural career, hindered occasionally by Theo, whose mental instability is compounded by the suspicion that her father is still alive.
McCarthy has a fine prose style, poetic but never distractingly so. She also has an excellent if uneven ability to draw character. Jonathan, the little adult who grows into a cold man, is someone we can recognize through his relentless pursuit of achievement in his career and his disdain for managing others’, or indeed his own, feelings. His looks make it easy for him to entice women, but he is unwilling to accept responsibility for them, and he remains closed-off and alone—except when Theo’s neediness compels him to save her from various difficulties.
However, many of the book’s pages are devoted to his relationships with several half-developed characters, and even Theo and Eve fail to manifest as fully realized personalities. Theo is at best a lovely sketch of a naïve, sensitive, tragically fragile person. Her allure is almost entirely symbolic. Eve, as a woman of international fame, fails to either come down to earth enough for us to understand her, or to exert the pull on the reader’s interest that she does on Jonathan’s. The revelations about her past are anti-climactic, not in their substance, but in their presentation. The relationship between her and Theo takes place largely “off-camera,” and is therefore not as affecting as it needs to be for us to care about how it plays out in the end.
Another character, Maria, with whom Jonathan falls in love, tells him “…[Y]ou don’t really like me. You have… a favourable impression of me.” Maria becomes a distant obsession for Jonathan over the course of the book, but even the reader is never given enough information to form more than a “favourable impression” of the woman who occupies so much of Jonathan’s thought.
Other lapses in character-writing amount to structural flaws, since the overall pace of the novel is slowed to accommodate Jonathan’s interactions with various college friends and casual love-interests. One of these characters, Antonia, in just a few scenes, becomes one of the most well-written personalities in the book, which only serves to highlight how unnecessary several other characters are to the story.
I realized upon finishing The Other Half of Me that I was disappointed not because I hadn’t enjoyed reading it, but because the beautiful prose, setting, and well-drawn narrator did not come together to fulfill my expectation of the really excellent book I believed it would be from the first few chapters. Still, there is much to admire about McCarthy’s first book, and much to inspire hope that her next book will do full justice to her evident talent and skill.