This third novel from Schutt (All Souls, 2008, etc.) is the desultory story of an unhappy marriage.
Ned and Isabel met in graduate school at Columbia. Pretty Isabel was smitten by the equally pretty Ned. Even then, Isabel had migraines caused by “sloth, envy, anger, uncertainty.” Both wanted to be writers; Ned had the ambition. After attending Ned’s cancer-stricken mother in California, they married in Vegas. We first meet them in London a year later, living frugally off Ned’s fellowship. Schutt is known for her elliptical style. What we gather through the ellipses about their sex life does not bode well: He’s importunate, she’s withholding. Isabel finds out she’s pregnant and decides on an abortion; she wants a career before motherhood. Ned attaches them to a rich, obnoxious banker (Schutt fixes him with a beady eye), and they vacation in Rome on his dime. Back stateside, Ned reconnects with Phoebe, an old flame. She’s newly married, but so what? Cheating is part of the fun. Isabel does it with Clive, an elderly, rich, married painter. Such a shame that the old boy is “practiced in taking advantage of the stunned or wounded.” He invites her up to Maine for some modeling. Isabel brings the uninvited Ned; if he drops Phoebe, she’ll stop servicing Clive. Her plan doesn’t work, though she cries and cries at a B&B on the way. (Its ancient owners, who bookend the novel, have an old-school marriage, loving and loyal.) This is where the younger couple’s marriage essentially ends, though the reader must piece together the details; this is surely one ellipsis too many. Perhaps tiring of mopey Isabel and vapid Ned, Schutt shifts attention to Clive. There’s not much drama there either.
This material does not do justice to Schutt’s sharp-edged vision of contemporary mores.