In her short stories and previous novels, Antonya Nelson has established her niche by portraying the domestic crisis—the tensions between spouses and generations—with a feel for the humor underlying even the direst of events.

Her fourth novel continues in this vein, focusing on Catherine and Oliver—he an entrepreneur nearing 70, she barely older than his daughters from two previous marriages. Their relationship is already precarious, as Oliver is seriously entwined with the most recent of a long line of younger “Sweethearts,” and Catherine regularly wonders how she ended up with a humorless husband nearly as old as her nursing-home bound mother.

Then a curious missive arrives notifying Catherine that Misty, her best friend from high school—“fearless, loyal, in love with intoxication, adventure, a challenge,” whom she hasn’t seen or heard from in 23 years—has died in a car accident and has named Catherine the guardian of her teenage daughter, Cattie. Suddenly Catherine’s own nearly forgotten years of rebellion come rushing to the surface—the lying, skipping school, drugs and promiscuity leading to two abortions—things she has never confided to the upright and slightly stodgy Oliver.

Nelson delves into the vagaries of Catherine and Oliver’s marriage and perceptively dissects Catherine’s confrontational relationship with her mother, a former professor who is openly critical of many of Catherine’s life choices. Catherine knows she “would never be the daughter her mother might have wished for.”

Nelson’s only misstep seems to be interspersing her tale with updates on Wichita’s serial killer, known as BTK, who has resurfaced after decades of quiet—a side plot which seems artificial, and never really blends with or adds to her story of relationships renewed or discarded. But she shines once again in her depiction of the many guises of marriage, and family ties both strengthening and coming undone.



 

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