A precise portrait of a blurry affair.
The third novel (and American debut) by the Canadian-born Szalay, one of the Daily Telegraph's Best 20 British Novelists Under 40, is a somewhat cold but nuanced and bracingly intelligent dissection of contemporary London life. James is a 30-something one-time dot-com megamillionaire now reduced to a meager middle-class existence with his dog, and reduced, too, to eking out a living via various iffy schemes, among them a shady business as a horse-racing tipster. Katherine, manager of a luxury hotel, is estranged from her husband, Fraser, an aging paparazzo who strayed with an underwear model, was exiled and now—perhaps a bit too desperately and adoringly for her comfort—wants his wife back. Szalay vivisects the awkward, tentative relationship that develops between Katherine and James, a sporadic companionship-with-benefits that is shadowed and complicated by the possibility of a resumption of her marriage to Fraser. She blows hot and cold, can be remote and enigmatic; he can seem needy and sex-obsessed. But both have appeal, too. James exudes a boyish sweetness and eagerness, and Katherine's hesitation and unreadability have less to do with emotional remoteness or with being a belle dame sans merci than with her genuine grief and confusion about what happened to her marriage. Both lovers are prone to ruthless postmortem examinations of their every encounter, and Szalay provides a sharp and occasionally humorous portrait not only of these two people but of the mores of 21st-century romance among those for whom romance has had its old glamour grubbed up a bit by age, world-weariness and the demands of everyday life.
Subtle in its psychology, elegantly written, with lively and amusing minor characters—an impressive novel, but one with a slight morguelike chill.