When Michael sees his wife Nancy chatting with a stranger at a party, his intuition tells him this is the man she should have married. What follows is a rather melancholy glimpse into the breakdown of a family, as Michael befriends the man, John, and schemes to have his wife fall in love and marry him. A concurrent storyline involves Michael and Nancy’s daughter Ryan who senses the marital tension and distances herself from her family, whilst, as the book blurb puts it, she “goes through a period of sexual awakening.”
It’s an interesting premise — how tragic is it to feel that you just met the man you know your wife should have married? Yet on the flip side, how fucked up is it to try to manipulate her into falling in love with this man enough to leave you, instead of just talking to her straight out? I’d expected Michael to be a bit of a tragic figure and to an extent he is, but he is also really messed up, like a reverse Tom Ripley who is determined to ensure himself a miserable life.
I mostly felt bad for Nancy. At one point, she says that while other women fantasize about sex with handsome strangers, her fantasy is for her husband to make love to her. How sad is that? She does deserve a more loving, affectionate spouse, and so to that end, kudos to Michael, I guess, for trying to make it happen?
Despite the story being told in Michael’s voice, it’s really hard to get into his head because all I could think of was how he was messing up the lives of people around him. At one point, he lets John believe he wants to leave Nancy because he has a serious, likely fatal, illness. I’m just imagining how scary and horrific it feels to learn that a loved one, whether a spouse or a friend, is fatally ill, and I’m actually angry at him for putting them through that. He later writes Nancy that he’s “sick in more ways than you know” and while he may have some medical conditions, I think he’s referring to something else which has a long, unfortunate history of being pathologized, and so that just made me like him even less.
It took me a while to get into this story and I almost didn’t finish it, but I’m glad I did because the story comes together in the end. Some of the things that really annoyed me came at the end as well, but overall, the ending made sense. There’s a quiet intensity to Larsen’s writing that I think will draw some readers in and at least propelled me enough to finish the book. It’s the kind of book that I think readers will either love and praise for its “mesmerizing, unsparing quality” (back cover blurb from author Karen Russell), or dislike and possibly hate for probably the same reason, its intensely claustrophobic focus on a man who self-destructs and takes his family down with him.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.