Fiction

When perfection goes awry

 

Novelist Christine Schutt has been a National Book Award finalist (for Florida) and a Pulitzer Prize finalist (for All Souls), yet she is still best described as a “writer’s writer’s writer”: a creator of exquisite sentences, admired by other writers, and not read nearly enough by everyone else.

Her latest novel deserves a wide readership. Its exploration of marriage is hardly uplifting — one is in a state of collapse, another endures through denial — yet Schutt is subtle enough to ensure that the misery does not prove overbearing.

Newlyweds Ned and Isabel Bourne are ambitious writers in their 30s who met in a master’s writing workshop. Of the two, Ned is more focused and successful. (Still, his agent tells him bluntly to “think memoir,” because a first collection of stories is a hard sell.) With their good looks, downtown Manhattan loft and prestigious fellowships in Europe for Ned, they appear to have an enviable life.

In truth, their relationship has been frayed from the start. They hardly speak to each other: “The grunting of the disgruntled; they’re both too tired to fight.” Plus, Isabel has serious intimacy issues, and Ned likes rough sex. He also longs for his ex, Phoebe, now married to a wealthy man, Ben Harris, and living in New Jersey.

Isabel and Ned’s marriage is further complicated when they meet Ben’s uncle, Clive Harris, and his second wife, Dinah. Clive is a well-known painter; Dinah is a poet. They have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement about Clive’s philandering.

At his nephew’s wedding, Clive sets his sights on Isabel; they kiss. He calls her a year later, inviting her to dinner. “She had kissed another man, not her husband, at a wedding, which was not a big deal,” Isabel thinks, “except that today she hoped to kiss this man again with clearer intentions.”

Clive tells Isabel she reminds him of his daughter, Sally — even though Sally is 40 and Isabel is 34, but his interest in Isabel is far from paternal. When he asks Isabel to spend the summer at his coastal Maine estate, with a guesthouse all to herself, she accepts. She’ll serve as a muse for Clive, modeling for his painting, and she’ll have time to write. Oddly (or perhaps not), she allows Ned to join her on the trip.

Schutt doesn’t handle any of the subsequent discord predictably. And unlike Richard Yates, whose scenes of corrosive marital relations erupt into a violent crescendo, Schutt has a more elliptical touch. Damage is expressed through silence, friction and distance, rarely rising above that.

The men in this story are somewhat peripheral; the author is most interested in exploring the women’s emotions. Dinah and Isabel become unlikely allies, and after Ned leaves Isabel, Dinah considers the toll of her own marriage: “Oh, pride was overrated; she had learned how to put it aside. Drinking a little helped and the days when she fancied she had written a good line, which sometimes turned into a poem and a good one at that.”

Prosperous Friends explores tough terrain with no edifying conclusions. Yet it is gorgeously written, and full of sharp insights into love, aging, sex and ambition. Perhaps the lesson to draw from this novel is that marital satisfaction is sometimes a relative notion at best.

Carmela Ciuraru reviewed this book for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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