An overwrought first novel, in which a young wife and mother encounters dust storms and despair in Depression-era Colorado.
Bena Jonssen and her husband, a physician, are moving to the small town of Pueblo with their seven-week-old son because back at the private clinic where he worked in Rochester, Minnesota, Dr. Ted Jonssen refused to give morphine to a woman who proved to be the mayor’s daughter. Or maybe her accusation that he molested her was true: the Jonssen marriage is already fraught with Bena’s knowledge of Ted’s infidelities. The action gets even more unpleasant in Pueblo, where the Jonssens’ babysitter matter-of-factly displays cigarette burns inflicted by her mother—and in an alley, Bena finds a pregnant prostitute sucking meat juices from butcher-shop paper. The local elite, subjects of Bena’s articles in The Pueblo Chieftain, also harbor nasty secrets. The Mineral Palace, built to promote Colorado’s mining wealth but now crumbling away on the outskirts, serves as an apt (albeit crushingly obvious) metaphor for this place of failed dreams and moral rot. To her credit, Julavits looks beyond her personal experiences for fictional material, but her reach exceeds her grasp. Everything is too studied, and none of the emotions rings quite true, not even Bena’s concern for her baby, who is alarmingly unresponsive to the world around him. The atmosphere is so bleak from the beginning that the increasingly grim developments become almost comical, though no one will be laughing at two horrific murders involving children or sordid revelations of sexual abuse and intra-family violence. Even the mysterious cowboy who attracts Bena ultimately commits a violent act, which is as implausible as the anachronistic talk at the Chieftain about newspapers “now competing with movies, books, and radio” as entertainment. It’s all too much; without the emotional anchor of characters to care about, the apocalyptic tone Julavits cultivates seems more affected than earned.
Ambitious and well written, but way over the top.