Goettel’s novel features a wonderfully uncommon setting: the Mancliffe Training School in Connecticut. One of the more unsettling clients at the school is 23-year-old Marya Bennett, “a kittenish pre-teen trapped in a twenty-something body.” Director Susan McManus takes a chance on an underemployed young man, John Kane, and hires him as Marya’s new one-on-one. Their story unfolds slowly—often too slowly—but the mysterious revelations prove worth the wait. Marya may be mentally challenged—retarded, according to the text—but she knows enough to use her striking looks and sexuality to get her way. John is either a gigolo or gay, depending on which of his co-workers you ask, while Susan heads the faith-based organization that contracts with the state to provide services to the institution’s clients. She also pastors the gay-friendly Goshen Meadows Congregational Church, which welcomes all comers yet teaches that homosexuality is sinful. (Susan is cagey about her own sexuality, so it’s unclear whether she might be drawn to Marya, John or both.) All three characters are carefully revealed in nuanced portrayals. There’s no nuance, however, to Goettel’s self-conscious, overwrought writing style, which unfortunately detracts from his story. The narrative flow is often interrupted by sentence fragments and bizarre punctuation: “John could not see Marya’s face; Susan was a study. Elegant insouciance; legs crossed, hands in her lap. What eloquence of female-bonding, John saw in a mirror darkly: dimmed promises of love and friendship, power in reserve.” The prose is much more effective in its short, clear passages. If the writing could just get out of the way, this could be a decent novel.
A provocative story held hostage by lofty prose and shoddy mechanics.