Literary success inspires only bad blood, jealousy and contrived plot twists in this debut novel by Levinson (Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will, 2004).
Catherine, the hero of this tale, lives in a bucolic New York college town, but her mood is dark: Her husband died under unusual circumstances not long after his debut was savaged by the famously brutal critic Henry Swallow. An unforgivable offense? Apparently not: After all, Catherine did have a dalliance with Henry when he was her teacher, and when he arrives in town looking for a place to live, she only half-grudgingly rents him the cottage behind her home. But Henry spends much of his time nearby, at the house where Antonia Lively, his latest young-writer conquest, is staying. Antonia is poised for literary fame with her debut, but Antonia’s uncle has arrived in town, bent to expose the ways she wrongly mined and manipulated family history for her novel. Levinson means to show how fiction provides a pathway to inner truths that can’t be spoken directly, but he never quite settles on an effective tone for his story. Henry is intended to be a fearsome critic and kingmaker, but his antics strain credulity; the same is true for Catherine, who is quick to forgive slights, insults and even life-threatening violence, apparently in the interest of moving the plot along. (In this town, the occasional break-in and burst of gunfire is only mildly troublesome.) There’s no sourness or malice in Levinson’s riffing on the unjust ways of the literati, but the novel is so weighted down by its plot turns and character collisions that it never achieves the lift of a satire either.
The foibles of novelists, critics and the people who love them are rich fodder for fiction, but weakly addressed here.