An East Coast couple grows increasingly entangled in the political and emotional lives of Oregon radicals.
As the third novel by Scribner (The GoodLife, 2000; Miracle Girl, 2003) opens, Scanlon and Naomi are a married couple heading west under a cloud of anxiety. Scanlon is an academic who specializes in anarchist and secessionist movements, but a much-derided journal article has shut him out of teaching jobs at first-tier universities. Naomi, for her part, is worried about her pregnancy and unhappy to be living in a fogbound Oregon college town. But there are upsides: The clean air appears to have revived the acute sense of smell she lost in a car accident, which ended her career as a perfume designer, and Scanlon has plenty of source material for his research. Indeed, as Scanlon becomes increasingly involved in one such movement he’s eventually appointed its leader—which on top of being bad form academically puts him in the awkward company of Sequoia, a tempting Earth goddess type. Naomi, meanwhile, struggles to manage the new baby while growing closer to Clay, a young, brooding and sometimes violent anarchist. Scribner realistically captures the nature of secessionist movements, but he leaves room for humor, usually at Scanlon’s expense: He’s routinely put into humiliating situations with his skeptical department chair or academic colleagues, and sweats over his attraction to Sequoia. And writing about Naomi gives Scribner’s prose an interesting degree of sensual detail; she captures a surprising amount of information through smell. Still, the book feels overwritten, full of dry subplots and scenes packed with needless detail. Eventually, the plot strains credulity: Scanlon’s academic colleagues hardly bat an eye that he’s lost his objectivity in leading the anarchist collective, and the collective is largely oblivious that they’re thesis fodder. The author resolves the many plot threads, but requires a contrived ending to get there.
Scribner has done his homework on everything from radicalism to perfumes, but in service to an overly schematic plot.