Proulx’s (Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet, 2008) dark second novel begins during a frigid Canadian winter that sets the mood for all that follows as the members of a family facing crises on several fronts cope by isolating themselves from each other and behaving recklessly.
On the first page, 17-year-old Finn announces to the reader that he is overpoweringly in love with his former babysitter Jess, with whom he’s been sexually active for months. Unfortunately, 22-year-old Jess is seriously dating Eric, the older brother of Finn’s friend Eli. Drunk, high, and distraught when Jess goes off with Eric at a party, Finn passes out in the snow and ends up losing his right hand. That same night, Finn’s father, Michael, who runs a large real estate management company, and mother, Mia, a banker-turned-photographer, learn that Michael’s partner and supposedly close friend Peter has not only funneled money out of the company, but has also cheated Michael out of his ownership. Instead of spending time with his son, Michael deals with his fury and grief about both his own and Finn’s crises by obsessively practicing baseball with a street kid about Finn’s age, developing a relationship that is creepy and potentially dangerous. Meanwhile, Mia resents that she always has to be the strong one in her marriage and goes on what she calls “unauthorized maternity leave”—really, leave from maternity and matrimony. Both parents are clueless about Finn’s inner turmoil concerning the loss of his hand and about the complex geometry of love triangles involving Finn with Jess, Eric, Peter’s teenage daughter, Frankie (who loves Finn), and Eli (who loves Frankie). Proulx’s teens are sympathetically if sharply realistic, but the ugliness of the adult characters’ behavior bludgeons the reader beyond endurance.
No one in this world of selfishness, vengefulness, and obsession seems aware what kind of collateral damage their bad choices—whether misguided or malevolent—will have on others.