Unmoored by her mother’s death, a young woman finds herself making questionable decisions, processing new information about the past, and reaching toward a more enlightened future.
There’s a punchy moment on Page 4 of Cantor’s debut when Olivia Harris, 22 and working a lowly job at a Manhattan film production company, goes home with a not-especially-attractive client and finds herself charging him $1,000 for sex. But Olivia, who grew up comfortably in Westchester County and has nearly finished her degree at Vassar, is no kind of sex worker; instead she’s a grieving daughter whose mother succumbed to a brain tumor a few months earlier. For much of this cool tale, Olivia maintains her unpredictable and borderline sympathetic stance, whether taking up with another, possibly abusive client; resisting any gesture of kindness from—or toward—her father’s new companion; or taking the support of parent, friends, and siblings for granted. But Olivia is working through her pain and loss and also following the trail of some mysterious correspondence in her mother’s effects which leads her into the world of yoga and later to an Indian ashram. In between these minimal events, the novel spends a great deal of time hanging out with Olivia—in bars, with her friend Kelsey, with family members, work colleagues, ashram acquaintances, passing lovers. Cantor acknowledges Olivia’s mixed emotions—anger, sadness, confusion—yet translates them into a slowly paced, numbly expressed sequence of jumpy choices. A coda follows, which perhaps sees the dawning of some maturity, although it’s accompanied by Olivia’s unacknowledged acceptance of another round of easy opportunities.
There’s no shortage of wrenching writing about the loss of a mother, but this novel fails to hit memorable heights.