This sad book is about a man whose marriage disintegrates because he can’t say, “I love you.” And it’s a book about a woman whose marriage disintegrates because she can no longer tolerate not hearing her husband say, “I love you,” year after frustrating year. So it is that Michael and Kelly Hays, after many years of marriage and a daughter, Samantha, decide to throw in the towel and divorce; the only problem is that Kelly doesn’t show up in court to sign the papers. Instead, she gets in her car and drives straight from her house in Pensacola to New Orleans, and checks into the small hotel that the couple considered “theirs” whenever they were in the city. But once in familiar room 303, Kelly finds herself anchorless, defenseless and sliding into despair.
Michael is a successful defense lawyer, and his lucrative job has allowed Kelly to dabble in charity work and other things. Anticipating the formal end of his marriage, he’s taken up with a sweet young flibbertigibbet who literally swans around in crinolines for much of the book. Yet Michael’s instinct and his long years with Kelly not only tell him that she’s at “their” hotel, but that something has gone and is going very wrong.
Robert Olen Butler, a past winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is masterful in the way he draws us into the hearts of his characters. It’s tempting to say that Kelly and Michael have Daddy issues, but that would be too glib. Kelly’s father was mentally ill; Michael’s father believed the withholding of tenderness was the proper way to be a man and passed that belief on to his son, to devastating effect. For the Hays’ tragedy is that in his heart, Michael is neither cold nor unloving, no matter how hard he tries to be.
Butler gives the last pages of his quiet book the urgency of a thriller. The ending might be too on the nose for some readers, but for this reviewer, it was heartbreaking, and just right.