Growing up, I had two main sources of information about love: Disney musicals and the Catholic Church.
Both sources were problematic.
Here’s the message from Disney: Hang in there, and maybe fight a witch or a nasty lion, and eventually, you’ll settle down with your beloved and all will be well forever.
And the message from the Catholic Church: Find one person, then have sex infrequently, without protection, and with a fair amount of shame. Stick with that person ‘till the bitter, bitter end. Even if you learn to hate the person, just deny, deny, deny. Compensate with alcoholic drinks, and with hours and hours of Sunday-morning mass. Finally, you will die, and you will be rewarded for your loveless existence with a golden palace and a choir of angels in heaven.
Anyway, that was my interpretation of the messages I was receiving.
It’s refreshing, therefore, to come across a writer who tells the truth.
Michelle Huneven has been at work as a novelist for approximately 20 years. Her novels appear infrequently; there have been only four. They tend to be fairly short, and more or less perfect. She is not a household name, though she should be. Why? Well, for example, her third novel is a feat of magic. That novel, Blame, was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and in a different year, it might have won. However, it was up against Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and let’s be honest: Wolf Hall was a once-in-a-century event.
Blame tells the story of a young woman, Patsy, whose experience with love in no way matches the plot of a Disney film. Patsy comes of age in the ‘80s, and she finds herself relying a bit too heavily on liquor for her entertainment. One day, she is accused of having (drunkenly) mown down and killed two pedestrians in a California driveway. She spends many months in jail, then rebuilds her life via Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). An older, charismatic AA leader falls in love with and marries her, and all is peachy…until it isn’t. The last part of the plot explains how Patsy tries to extricate herself from her stultifying and entirely plausible marriage.
For Patsy, love is not patient. Love is not kind. Love nearly destroys her. She finds herself enraged by her well-intentioned, decent husband, and by his spoiled, fully-grown daughter. She catches herself longing to run away with a colleague, desperate to have one more chaste, hour-long phone call with a man who is not her spouse. Her agony makes the reader uncomfortable. That’s because her agony seems utterly, indisputably real.
If I had to highlight just one of Huneven’s many abundant talents, it would be this: She makes you forget that the people you’re reading about don’t actually exist. You feel as if you were reading about your own family and friends.
This is as true in Huneven’s new novel as it is in Blame. The new novel, Off Course takes us, once again, to the ‘80s, to a mountain community in California. A young woman, Cress, has moved to her parents’ A-frame so she can finish her economics dissertation. (Cress’s mother once had the lead in a small production of Troilus and Cressida—and it was such a success that she used it as inspiration when choosing her daughter’s name.)
Why chain yourself to a dissertation when you can take long walks in the woods and fall in love?
Cressida feels somewhat ambivalent about her thesis, so she devotes most of her time to fretting about her own unwise romantic decisions. First, she allows herself to be seduced by a shady, bearlike lothario, who sleeps with just about every two-legged creature in California. Next, she becomes entangled with Quinn, a brooding, handsome, married man whose voice is low-pitched and irresistible.
No, no, Cress! Don’t do it! Write that thesis! Alas, Cress is powerless in Quinn’s company. Quinn reveals that, years earlier, he had to clean up the mess after his ne’er-do-well father offed himself. The father left cavernous debts, and Quinn was charged with rescuing his mother from poverty. At the same time, he found himself married to a childlike, rather shallow woman, Sylvia, who could not begin to fathom the extent of his pain.
Unlike Sylvia, Cress is an intellectual. She also has empathy for Quinn; she has a powerful imagination. Soon, the two are rutting as often as possible—while the unaware Sylvia stays home with Quinn’s kids.
One of this novels many pleasures is its clear-eyed understanding of human folly. Cress, Quinn, and even Sylvia are all frequently maddening. They do not behave in heroic ways. They do not devote their energy to noble causes. They’re self-absorbed and often self-deluded and, paradoxically, for this reason, you can’t help but care for them. They are simply human.
The plot becomes something like a fight-to-the-death. Cress nearly starves herself, she’s so consumed with thoughts of her love triangle. A tense supermarket encounter with Sylvia, after Sylvia has learned of her husband’s dalliances, sends Cress reeling:
Sylvia put a hand on Cress’s cart and left it, fingers curling slightly around the chrome. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you, Cress. So I’m glad we ran into each other. I wanted to say…” Sylvia glanced quickly into Cress’s face, then down. “Well, I hope you’re not staying around up here because you think Quinn’s going to leave me and marry you. Because that’s not going to happen, Cress. It never was, and it never will.” In her girlish tones twanged a wire of certainty. “Quinn and I are going to grow old together. We always were, and nothing’s changed. If he got your hopes up for something else, he shouldn’t of, and I’m sorry for that. I really am.”
Of course, the outcome of the plot in no way matches up with Sylvia’s blithe prediction. (How often does life work out in accordance with our plans?) Suffice it to say: The romantic crisis is resolved in a way that is both surprising and inevitable. It is resolved in a way that will likely make you think of some of your own complicated battles with love.
Did you notice that “twanging wire of certainty” in the passage above? Huneven’s writing is full of that kind of smart metaphor; her prose is lyrical without ever trying too hard. Note, too, that Sylvia misspeaks. She says, “shouldn’t of”, when she really means, “shouldn’t have”. Huneven is intensely aware of the social awkwardness created by differences in class and education. Her sharp eyes and ears are always at work in this new, rich, and subtle novel.
You’ll note, too, that Cress’s choice of dissertation topic echoes throughout the book’s subplots. Is there really any science behind the study of money? Don’t people often treat money in the same way they treat their own hearts—crazily, unpredictably, in a way that should be regretted? Huneven concerns herself with many complex transactions, both financial and emotional. Why do we give what we give? And how do we choose each gift’s recipients?
Off Course weighs in at a slim 304 pages, and yet I’ve only begun to describe its strengths. I haven’t told you about Cress’s fascinating sister, Sharon, who lives in England, attends Overeaters Anonymous, and participates in a form of therapy that requires her to “relive” the experience of her own birth. And I’ve not found room to talk about Cress’s semi-tragic father, whose obsessive stinginess (he grew up in the Great Depression) severely limits his capacity for joy.
Still, before I sign off, I must say one more thing. While reading Off Course, I was also making my way through Donna Tartt’s splashy Dickensian novel, The Goldfinch. As every reader knows, The Goldfinch has become a major work of contemporary fiction; it has quite rapidly garnered many, many near-hyperbolic statements of acclaim. And I love The Goldfinch just as much as the next guy. But I can’t help but record a thought that ran through my head toward the end of that brick-like work.
Tartt introduces a character named Lucius Reeve, who looms as a significant threat to her protagonist. Lucius is eloquent and frightening, and his appearance in the plot is enough to make you breathlessly turn the pages.
Still, as I read about him, I couldn’t help but think: Lucius is a device. He’s here because it’s convenient for Tartt to insert him into her tale. He doesn’t seem entirely “formed”.
By contrast, it’s a tribute to Huneven that each and every one of her characters has a thorny, winding story. Each one is the star of his or her own existence. The secondary characters insist on behaving in their own idiosyncratic ways, even when their actions puzzle and startle Huneven’s self-absorbed protagonist.
Off Course may not gain the attention that has been showered on The Goldfinch, and that’s simply the way of the world. But let it be known: Like Tartt, Michelle Huneven has produced a literary miracle.
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