Inflamed artistic temperaments and miscellaneous relationship issues preoccupy two generations of immediate and extended families—in a crowded debut by Esquire’s literary editor.
Somewhat contentedly married Merit Ash stoically endures her Mr. Fixit husband Wyatt’s finicky perfectionism, while performing her tasks for local regional magazine Ohio Is without tumbling too quickly into bed with sexy slacker co-worker Randy. Nor does Merit lack other baggage, most of it inherited from her father, Lowell Haven, a flamboyant artist best known for his absurdly egocentric “self-portraits” (Lowell as the Wife of Bath and other Canterbury Pilgrims, Lowell Crucified with Cow Crucified Next to Him, etc.), and mother Jenny, herself a painter, long divorced from Lowell, whose imagined grisly deaths dominate many of her canvasses. We learn their histories through omniscient narration of Merit’s increasingly distracted misadventures; excerpts from Jenny’s diary detailing her flight to London in the 1970s, “work” as a woefully unqualified au pair for a bisexual rich twit’s family, and fateful meeting with dashing young Lowell; and the très gai effusions of real estate heir Fergus Goodwyn, who was Jenny’s high school confidant, and now lives with his lover Lowell (and other spongers) at On Ne Peut Pas Vivre Seul, a 65-room mansion smack in the middle of the Ohio heartland, that’s a cross between Fawlty Towers and Michael Jackson’s Neverland. The story’s actions (so to speak) are focused toward a lavish climactic party, at which it seems perfectly reasonable when the Ashes’ preadolescent daughter Caroline arrives costumed as Caligula, and no big deal when Jenny reveals what’s meant to be a bombshell but in fact strikes us as simply further calculated eccentricity. It’s all funny for a while, but eventually the reader feels as if trapped at an endless cocktail party, pinned in a corner with Truman Capote, Nancy Mitford and Alec Guinness as Gully Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth.
Mostly frosting, not nearly enough cake.