Julia Pierpont’s debut novel squanders a suspenseful opening — among other occasionally fine literary turns — on a cloistered and dreary domestic melodrama. The author, a resident of Manhattan and contributor to The New Yorker, proves imaginative enough to inhabit the minds of four different members of a disintegrating nuclear family and sufficiently versatile to render their distinct thoughts and words in a convincing manner. Yet these characters and their travails become achingly boring in no time at all.
When installation artist Jack Shanley’s ex-mistress sends a box consisting of printouts of their torrid email correspondence to his wife Deb, a ballet instructor, you know trouble is afoot. All the more so when the package is intercepted by the couple’s children, 11-year-old Kay and 15-year-old Simon.
“He was angrier than she thought he’d be, and when he’d read enough, without saying anything to Kay … he pushed down on the pages and lifted his chin and shouted: ‘Mom!’”
Deb’s subsequent rebuffing of Jack’s attempts to make up for his betrayal stems from the fact that their kids know what he did. Indeed, she previously forgave him an indiscretion (with the same woman) because Kay and Simon weren’t aware of it. This time, however, the situation is different. “Deb wanted to protect her children. … She wanted to carry her children someplace safe, her mother’s or the movies, carry them, though they were fifteen and eleven and too big for her to carry.”
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Yet what motivates Deb? The kids’ emotional welfare or her own sense of humiliation? This moderately intriguing question makes Deb more of an enigma than Jack, whom Pierpont portrays — somewhat one-dimensionally — as a selfish dolt.
What follows is a series of anti-climactic vignettes in the drawn-out breakdown of Deb and Jack’s marriage. Pierpont tries to enliven things by flashing forward and back in time, exploring Simon and Kay’s turmoil and moving the action away from the Shanley family home in Manhattan (Deb and the kids head to Rhode Island for the summer, while Jack goes to Arizona for a job interview and Texas to visit his mother).
Yet changing the scenery, playing with the chronology and flitting from one character to another can’t compensate for the glaring lack of an arresting story. Perhaps the material Pierpont fetters herself with is to blame. Most people won’t find anything original in a marriage dissolving due to the husband’s infidelity and the wife’s reaching the end of her tether. Among the Ten Thousand Things, which takes its title from a line in a Galway Kinnell poem about parenthood and the passage of time, essentially serves up episodic character studies threaded together with tedium.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer in Beirut, Lebanon.