A lonely writer falls for a barely teenage girl, and together they embark on a disquieting road trip to wed in Mexico.
Jack Strabler is a lonely author living in the backwoods of Bristol, Tenn., whose solitary childhood and lack of close relationships have turned him into a reclusive figure motivated by his compulsions. The greatest of these is to write and battle his romantic loneliness, even entertaining the unsolicited email advances of a Russian girl named Natalya. But both writing and his Russian correspondence are swiftly forgotten when he encounters 13-year-old Audrey Miland—a precocious girl with eyes full of a perverse maturity and a past of hidden abuse. Overtaken by her coquettishness, Jack begins a vague, abstinence-based courtship with her. When they are found out and forbidden from contacting one another, Audrey finds a shrewd, horrifying solution. Renaming Audrey “Natalya,” the fugitive lovers flee to Mexico to get married, his Talya’s sole caveat for consummating their relationship. Kersh’s (Hotel Sarajevo, 2000) sophomore novel presents a modern-day version of Nabokov’s Lolita that often acknowledges but never escapes its own derivativeness, adding few contemporary flourishes to the narrative beyond superficial cultural references (Hollister, Lady Gaga). Underdeveloped as both a protagonist and narrator, Jack makes few attempts to evoke sympathy for himself, and it’s difficult to form a clear picture of him as a character since his personality shifts constantly. At times, he seems a pathetic figure, broken and obsessed only with matters outside himself, while in other situations he appears indifferent to everything save Audrey, a compelling contradiction that goes unexplored. The novel misses several similar opportunities, perhaps none richer than the ever-fluctuating roles Audrey and Jack take on in their relationship. Along with being disturbing lovers and clumsy friends, both take on complex parental roles with each other, a dichotomy disappointingly buried beneath their crossing obvious taboos. The novel downplays much of the vulgarity, attempting to accentuate the beauty, even the “magic,” of Audrey’s budding sexuality, but somehow it achieves the opposite, basking in a kind of titillation that is as confusing as it is disconcerting.
A tragic love story that ignores context and needs a more critical eye.