An abused wife prepares to confront her husband in court in this wan successor to Cunningham’s debut (Beautiful Bodies, 2002).
Juliana Smythe has been living under an order of protection since her husband Matt attacked her on New Year’s Eve. Now it’s late February and a hearing in Family Court is imminent (the attack was not deemed serious enough for criminal charges). Juliana is snowed in, alone, in her picturesque Victorian overlooking a lake in the Adirondacks. The couple had had a happy marriage for 17 years, and only in the last six months had Matt started to change. The two had met in college and married after a short courtship. Her mother dead, her father vanished, Juliana felt rescued from oblivion by the handsome Matt; then he rescued her again, carrying her to the hospital after a life-threatening traffic accident. She went on to a successful acting career, starring as the victim in so-called FemJep (female in jeopardy) movies made for TV. And now she’s a real-life victim. But why? Is Matt coming apart as middle age approaches, or is it the onset of mental illness inherited from his father? Matt was a kind man who has become a cruel one; the rest is a disappointing blur. Juliana (who narrates) we know better. She’s still the ingénue she portrays on screen, hoping for a replacement knight in shining armor but finding only a creepy neighbor, a menacing repairman and a heavy breather on her phone as she consults shrinks and lawyers, recruits friends as witnesses and picks out a costume for court appearances. Perhaps realizing that the story needs pumping up, Cunningham contrives a brutal assault on Juliana’s cleaning lady, with the unfortunate effect that the bloodshed makes Matt’s attack seem like small potatoes.
Cunningham does some good work at the edges (greedy lawyers, New Age actresses, the quirks of small-town life), but her treatment of a dissolving marriage (the novel’s core) is trite and uninvolving.