Judge’s (Mothers and Others: A Story Collection, 2014) new novel tells a story of addiction, betrayal, and death.
Helen Clark and her husband, Steven, are among the first to stumble across the body of Max Shaw, a presumed suicide. Unbeknownst to Steven, Max was Helen’s childhood sweetheart and recent lover, and his unexpected death hits her hard. In the days that follow, she finds herself having dark memories of the past, mourning Max’s loss, and wallowing in despair. Steven is baffled by her behavior, which compounds the difficulties that already plague their marriage. On a friend’s recommendation, Helen begins seeing a therapist, and soon painful recollections begin to surface. Helen’s sessions, dreams, and late-night musings reveal her troubled past. She recalls her bouts with addiction and her efforts to detox; her father’s affair and the deterioration of her parents’ marriage; her young love with the handsome Max and her subsequent abortion; and finally, the later years of her marriage to Steven and the birth of her daughter. Along the way, Max flits in and out of Helen’s life, embodying a passion that was never extinguished. To her, he’s both attractive and dangerous—opening up new possibilities, yet also threatening everything she holds dear. Judge’s novel is an exploration of a complicated woman plagued by demons of guilt. In many ways, the character of Helen is thoroughly unlikable; she can be stubborn and unforgiving, although the novel makes clear that her life didn’t turn out the way she planned. The author does an admirable job of balancing the “flipsides” of Helen’s personality by examining the events that influenced her choices and behavior. At times, though, the narrative feels confused, as readers are forced to piece together Helen’s chronology from anecdotes that jump around in time. Her internal struggles, too, are alternately compelling and frustrating; her painful memories explain much of her sadness, yet her refusal to invest in potential solutions is maddening. Judge manages to bring some resolution to Helen’s story, although some questions remain unanswered at the end.
A dark, complex tale with very few winners.