THE USE OF FAME by Cornelia Nixon


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In alternating chapters, an unhappy couple reveals their marital woes.

In her unsatisfying fourth novel, Nixon (Jarrettsville, 2009, etc.) chronicles the deteriorating marriage of 52-year-old Ray Stark, a famous poet, and Abigail McCormick, 60, a literature professor. Ray, who wants to “disrupt” language, grew up among miners in West Virginia with an abusive mother; Abby, a stickler for correct grammar, comes from San Francisco wealth. They live on opposite coasts: Ray teaches part time at Brown, where he covets a full-time professorship, proof of recognition by the Ivy League. Abby teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, where she spends free time riding her beloved horse and tooling around in her Porsche. Both have physical problems: Abby has lupus, Ray’s heart is enlarged, compromising its ability to pump blood. He is always in pain; stress makes Abby’s symptoms flare, and stress abounds after Ray, apparently suffering from a stereotypical midlife crisis, confesses that he has fallen in love with a student. Will he stay with Abby or choose 30-year-old Tory? That shopworn question propels the plot. It’s hard to see why either woman wants him: he is disgruntled, angry, envious of friends’ successes; moodiness gives way to rages. Tory is so slightly sketched that the reader has no idea what she sees in Ray, nor, apart from her youth, what he sees in her. Although Abby is turned off by Ray’s “coal-mine manners” and his preference for movies featuring “exploding heads, zombies, or aliens,” although he denigrates her interest in literary theory, berates her for spending money on her horse, and accuses her of neglecting him, she yearns to save the marriage. Self-medicating with Ambien and alcohol, Abby repeatedly, and almost lethally, blacks out; Ray, suspicious of doctors, refuses to face the prospect of a heart transplant. But it’s hard to care about characters who are one-dimensional, as are their assorted friends. Especially grating is Ray’s friend Johnny, a poet, a womanizer, and a boor.

A predictable plot with characters who fail to evoke sympathy.

Pub Date: May 9th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-61902-949-1
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Counterpoint
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2017


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