Swinton’s first novel tracks the life of Mila Simon from her first affair onward.
As a Russian, Mila believes she has a feel for the tragic, and she keenly hears the call of the void even from within her relatively happy marriage. She makes the decision to cheat with a physically unremarkable playwright and director, getting away with it for months while her investment banker husband’s long hours make it easier to hide suspicion. Though she loves her husband dearly, he wonders, due to their lackluster sex life, if she’s a lesbian. Her partner in infidelity has no such questions or qualms, bringing out a side of her that has long lain dormant. When her betrayal is exposed, her husband’s black-and-white thinking comes to the fore, and he exiles her. Mila moves back in with her Russian Jewish parents, immigrants from Latvia, and begins a strange double life of being a broken daughter by day and a compulsive dater by night. Throughout her breakdown, Mila sees men she doesn’t care for, men who don’t care for her and a succession of therapists to help with her mental state. Swinton’s descriptions of the thought processes of a disordered mind are spot-on, particularly when Mila spirals into depression over the end of yet another mediocre relationship. “But I had no strength to say anything to Ezra,” Mila thinks of a man who didn’t suit her but whose departure crushed her. “Sadness was suffocating me. I was in Manhattan, but it may as well have been the Siberian gulag: My mind made it so. Inside the prison of my mind was a place of great suffering and hardship.” With compassion, Swinton writes of the woman’s descent into the blackness of despair and her continuous rises and falls brought on by a string of post-divorce relationships. With the help of her mother and father, Mila keeps herself together enough to encounter a true blessing in the book’s last chapters. Swinton has an ear for dialogue and a deep understanding of mental imbalance as well as the importance of family and the quirks of Russian Jewish immigrants in New York. A riveting read, this novel will ensnare readers in the first chapter and not let up.
A compelling story about the wrenching pain of divorce and the redemptive power of family ties.