A young woman works through psychosexual trauma with lurid excess and much introspection in this sprawling debut novel.
Nesbitt, a poet and fiction writer, tells the story of June Barrett, a woman in her 20s in Reagan-era Chicago who undergoes several drastic changes in lifestyle and persona. She begins as the wife of up-and-coming young architect Cam as they settle into a well-heeled yuppiehood. Cracks soon appear in their facade: Cam begins castigating June for supposed hookups but also pressures her to start swinging with two other couples. When he develops a cocaine addiction, he grows controlling and even violent, prodding June to consider leaving the marriage. She does that with a vengeance in the novel’s second part, working as a prostitute under the name Reni. Her life becomes a picaresque of tawdry “dates” and bachelor parties, described in graphic but prosaic detail, and she dabbles in check fraud, booze, and drugs. Part three shifts gears again, with Reni moving out of prostitution and, as Sandy, into a giddy lesbian live-in relationship with a Vietnamese-American artist named Mary Colleen “Coolly” Shea. Their seemingly sparkling romance darkens into paranoia, abandonment, and a downward spiral that ends with Sandy sinking into a coma after she is run over by a bus. The complex narrative intercuts Sandy and Coolly’s story with scenes of Sandy/June in the hospital struggling with rehab and pondering her fraught family history of abuse.
Nesbitt weaves a Joycean tapestry in the novel’s 502 pages, replacing Dublin with an atmospheric, sometimes nightmarish Chicago stocked with sharply observed characters, from a gay antiques shop owner to a motherly diner waitress, all surrounded by the labyrinthine ruminations and memories of June and her alter-egos. The author is a superb writer with a fine ear for dialogue, an eye for setting and behavior, and a talent for lyrical prose that’s evocative and sensual even when it’s abstract. (“Hope was not an obsidian mountain to be scaled, not a bog of sewage to be drowning in, but the melted snow of a river rushing with abandon into a clear vernal pool; I could find inordinate joy in grocery bag dresses tied with jump rope; I could tell boys I wasn’t afraid of worms.”) Unfortunately, the story often seems thin and disjointed; while the changes June endures are heavily foreshadowed, they don’t feel well motivated. The June-Cam plot bogs down in décor (“I learned quickly…to marry style periods…like the leather couches Cam wanted for the living room with the Art Nouveau sofa table I found”). They seem like a mismatched couple whose breakup is more a relief than a tragedy. Reni’s odyssey as a prostitute is the book’s best part; her adventures merit the author’s literary flair and have an invigorating thread of grotesque comedy. (“Hello, bay-be. Rest that hand now, reinforcements have arrived,” declares Reni’s brassy partner Kay upon meeting a sad-sack client.) Part Three’s Sandy-Coolly romance is unconvincing, sunny, and blissful until it’s not. Throughout the volume run intermittent meditations on June’s childhood and family relationships, which seem unpleasant but only mildly dysfunctional—and not very gripping—until fragmented revelations gel toward the tale’s end. As disturbing as they are, they come too late to weld June’s/Reni’s/Sandy’s experiences into a dramatic whole.
A brilliantly written but uneven and sometimes aimless saga of dysfunction.