Halfway through Craig Holden’s erotic thriller The Narcissist’s Daughter I realized that the unfolding plot was a pitch-black take on the central dynamics from The Graduate. But while the Mike Nichols’ film mostly plumbed the situational comedy of a young man transferring his sexual allegiance from an older predatory woman to her more innocent daughter, Holden sees the darker psychological implications inherent in those relationships. From it, he crafts one of the better literary thrillers I’ve read in a long while, a revenge tale that twists into a well-constructed edge-of-your-sofa-cushion murder story.
Set in Cleveland, 1979, the book is narrated by Syd Redding, a young man enrolled in pre-med courses in the hopes of riding his natural abilities out from under his alcoholic grease-monkey step-father and into the world of high-paid medicine. He is given a job in a lab by a hot-shot doctor named Ted Kessler, the narcissist of the title, who, along with a creepy inclination to share his nymphomaniac wife, is possessed of a giant ego and an inexplicable missing arm. For reasons I won’t divulge, Syd’s affair with Mrs. Kessler, Joyce, turns sordid and it becomes clear that Syd is a pawn in a more advanced and sophisticated sexual game than Syd had bargained for. So in order to get revenge he begins to court the Kessler’s 17-year-old daughter, Jessi.
If you think you can see exactly where it’s going, you’re only partly right. Holden does a good job just tweaking the reader’s expectations but not tweaking them too much. He does not, for one thing, pull out any over-the-top character reversals: there are characters that turn out to be not quite what they seem, but the changes are subtle and believable. The drama that unfolds works better because of this distinction.
The beginning of the book is a bit of a muddle, the writing over-stylized with an abundance of adjectives. Here is a description of an unimportant doctor seen in a cafeteria: “(He) wore a sport coat of some kind of coarse woven material that was meant to be hip and was undoubtedly absurdly expensive but looked absurd on his paunchy shortish middle-aged carcass.” To my ear, the repeated use of absurd is a mistake as is the hat-trick of adjectives used to modify carcass.
Fortunately, as his plot begins to really cook, Holden manages to cut back on such stylish excess. There is one major exception, that being the sex scenes. It seems fair to reveal (for those on either side of the wordy-sex-scene fence) that this book features a good half-dozen heartily described scenes of carnality. They are not exactly gratuitous, in the sense that sex, and its many functions, both psychological and physical, is integral to both the plot and to the main character’s motivations, but if you favor the literary equivalent of fade-to-black, then this is probably not your cup of tea. Holden likes details, and nowhere more so than when describing the naked form. I present to you his description of one character’s upper torso:
She had nice breasts, I’ll say that, the breasts of a slightly overweight just-turned-18-year-old, which is to say that they were more substantial than the typical breasts of a young woman of average weight and yet still retained all the firmness and height and profile of the newly budded, with nipples (pale they appeared in that light) that tipped ever so slightly moonward and underbulges that hung ever so nicely earthward and round lateral edges that extended beyond her chest wall so that if she were to turn away from you and raise her arms slightly you would still be able to see the arcs of them protruding from the sides.
It’s hard to not appreciate an author so dedicated to getting something just precisely right.
Despite these excesses, when the book gets going, around the mid-point, I found myself unable to stop reading, ripping through page after page to find out what happens next, and there is no greater compliment to a thriller than that. And this urgency, this need-to-know, continues to the final page, even after the narrative suddenly fast forwards through the decades and Holden has revealed all the cards that are up his sleeve.
There are other flaws in the book besides the overuse of adjectives, including moments when I felt as though Holden had forgotten that he’d set the book in 1979, so that he inserts random references to the time period — going to see Grease, watching Mary Hartman, checking out an early show by the Ramones. And the subplot of Syd’s own dysfunctional family, while ultimately crucial to the resolutions of the novel, was less compelling to me than the dynamics between Syd and the Kessler family. Maybe that’s because Syd’s interactions with the glamorous Kessler family are where the sex is, and ultimately, sex and its ill rewards are the driving forces of the book, and what makes it as good a thriller as it is.