An unhappy marriage implodes when demons from the couple's past and the surprise arrival of the wife’s pregnant sister upset the tenuous rhythms of family life.
In their 30s, Katie and Wilson have thousands of dollars of debt and seven degrees between them; they met in Kalamazoo in a Ph.D. program where they were enrolled because both “found it easier to start yet another program than to find a job.” Katie has no ambitions to apply her degree; after graduation, she's isolated inside a small condo with two children from her marriage to Wilson and a son from another relationship. Bored and passing time until her husband finishes his dissertation, "The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath," she has an affair with her neighbor Steven, a wealthy, much-younger community college student with a jealous fiancee. Katie believes her true self was lost as a child when she was repeatedly raped by a man at the edges of her father’s social circle. Scenes of Katie with her monstrous abuser are compelling but heighten the novel’s unevenness. A wickedly funny neurotic and sober alcoholic, Wilson writes the first three words of his dissertation—but despite showing up at his desk every day, nothing more. He falls into new forms of addiction, abandoning school so he can sell cars to feed a heroin habit. The novel’s nearly 400 pages are slow to launch. Katie’s sister, January, doesn't appear until almost a quarter of the way into the saga; her sections have a fresher, more consistent tone. A free spirit who left home with her mother’s blessing at 15, Jan romanticizes the three years she spent as the adoring girlfriend of a self-involved musician who dumped her when he became a rock star. He’s still touring the country while she has lived alone for 20 years in middle-of-nowhere New Mexico in a house paid for by his fame. Although she hasn't been in touch with Katie or Wilson since skipping their wedding, January shows up unannounced in Michigan, determined to learn how to be a mother by installing herself in her sister's world.
An ambitious first novel that suffers from the same ennui as do its characters.