Desire is a funny thing. At its best, it can inspire us to achieve the seemingly impossible. We become better people, do important things, and create awesome beauty. At its worst, though, desire, love, and need can take over our lives, becoming obsessions that we find very difficult to surmount. This week’s book club features three new novels that deal with the highs and lows of wanting and having. Build up your own reading wish list by reading on.
1. The Half Wives by Stacia Pelletier ($26): Many people’s greatest desire is to have a child, continuing their line to the next generation and creating an unbreakable bond. Thwarted, this desire can lead to depression and obsession. Even worse, though, is getting what you want, only to have it snatched away. Pelletier’s sophomore effort takes place over the course of one dramatic day, May 22, 1897, the 16th anniversary of the birth and 14th anniversary of the death of Henry and Marilyn Plageman’s child, Jack, a tragedy that occurred while the then-happy couple was making love. Since the tragic loss, Marilyn wraps herself up in volunteering for the local orphanage, and Henry distracts himself from their lack of intimacy by spending his time with another woman, Lucy, and their now eight-year-old child, Blue.
“Your wife never comes to your bedroom anymore. She respects your privacy too much. She’ll be out the door early herself. Marilyn will survive today, survive May 22, by moving ceaselessly. She will not slow down once. Not until, say, eight o’clock tonight, at which point she’ll go to pieces,” thinks Henry, who has been temporarily thrown in jail for demonstrating after the city threatens to remove the graveyards for development. Normally, he will go with Lucy to place flowers on the grave, carefully scheduling their visit so they leave before Marilyn’s return, but this year will end that delicate balance.
The novel switches between Henry, Marilyn, and Lucy’s voices; it’s written largely in the second person to help demonstrate the characters’ detached perspectives, while creating a sense of urgency for the reader (this is no dry historical tome). We see a couple trapped in a broken marriage but unable to leave each other, the other “half-wife,” who can’t understand why, and her daughter, who unthinkingly precipitates the events that will change their lives. The novel suggests, though, that if the life you’re living is a half-life, filled with regret and obsession, perhaps change is necessary.
2. The Absence of Evelyn by Jackie Townsend ($17): Forty-seven-year-old Rhonda and her adopted college-aged daughter Olivia, “the last of her three children to need her, even if she didn’t know it,” are both sublimating their passions. While Rhonda has an Olympic gold medal in volleyball and a supposedly fulfilling job running a charitable foundation, her children have left home (now a “tomb of silence”), her estranged sister Evelyn is dead, and her divorce has just been finalized. The latter is something of a relief, but it just confirms Rhonda’s suspicions that true love is something that happens to other people.
Meanwhile, Olivia loves theater but has decided that she’s going to be a lawyer instead; it’s not going well. “She could no longer concentrate at the sorority or at the college library, she had assured her mother, which was actually code for her daughter wasn’t getting along with anyone.”
When Evelyn’s former lover Marco contacts Olivia, asking her if she wants some of Evelyn’s possessions, Olivia finds herself flying off to Vietnam to collect them. Meanwhile, Rhonda is taking a trip of her own to confront Marco for his role in the sisters’ estrangement, but she intends to surprise him at home in Italy. He’s not there, but his daughter Carlotta is: In fencing training, she’s an Olympic-level athlete like Rhonda, something her own daughter never wanted to be. In the meantime, new bonds are created, old ones strengthen, and all sorts of secrets are spilled. Both women learn about the importance of their own ambition and drive; without passion, life is empty.
3. No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts ($27): “Not much happens here but the same, same […] But this thing is strange. The boy we all saw grow up came back to us slim and hungry-gaunt like a coal miner. With money. JJ Ferguson made it.” A story of longing and American determination, No One Is Coming to Save Us both twists and echoes The Great Gatsby’s familiar refrain. Set in a small town in North Carolina propped up by the furniture industry, the novel shows us that industry’s decline and the mass layoffs that follow. Sylvia and her daughter Ava have jobs, but they don’t consider this the success they seek. Sylvia is still in mourning for her dead son, and Ava is married but seems unable to have children. They are both surprised by the abrupt return of JJ Ferguson after 15 years, who left town, as Sylvia puts it, “someone like her, someone black, someone once poor,” and comes back to show the town his success.
Showing he’s here to stay, JJ builds a house at the top of town, the place where (in Watts’ socially biting words), “Every town has a section where the people are rich and their lives so far from yours you almost expect them to speak another tongue.” Why, though, is he here in the first place? Ava holds the key to the mystery: JJ wants her and has felt that way for years. In JJ’s narrative, he can return as the conquering hero, creating a story in which he’s the protagonist instead of a side character.
JJ’s return leads all the characters, and even the entire town, to confront their desires, and the danger even having desire represents: “You can’t let people know what you dream — especially if you can’t get it. You knowing that they know opens a wound in you, an embarrassing naked space that you can’t let just anybody witness.” Watts is already well known for her short stories, winning a Pushcart Prize, and the lyricism and quotable nature of her debut novel promises a great career to come. Both the Chicago Review of Books and Entertainment Weekly (among others) list it as one of the year’s most anticipated reads, so take a look; you may find your own new obsession under its covers.
What books make you obsessed? Tag us in your next reading object of desire @BritandCo.
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