A slender, sarcastic drama of unhappy middle-aged marrieds in the Seattle suburbs.
By turns irritating, shocking, and moving, Guterson’s debut follows in glib, lip-snarling prose the sad plight of a 40ish woman who finds herself pregnant and not sure who the father is—whether it’s her unsavory sports-mad husband of 15 years, or the maddening, commitment-shy, on-again-off-again lover from her youth whom she had sex with recently in the bathroom at a wedding. Julia, by all accounts, is in “a bit of a mess” as she ponders the facts of her horrid life—married to bland Jim, who flaunts his infatuation with another woman from work; the mother of pot-smoking, withdrawn teenaged Chad, whom she hardly knows anymore; chained by lack of imagination to a part-time job in a middle school that leaves her brain-dead; and still pining for the golden lover of her college days, Ray, who resurfaces maybe once a season. Pathetic, unambitious, and depressed, Julia elicits nothing but shrugs from her long-time therapist. But Guterson manages to elevate even this sordid material by appealing to her reader’s sense of having-been-there empathy. Despite some spiteful characterizations passed off as humor—referring to the people at her middle school, Julia comments: “Yet even a smelly, obnoxious kid is a few floors above the sub-zero basement mentality of the vast majority of teachers at the school”—Guterson refuses to demonize her characters, not Jim, or Ray, or even Jim’s perennially drunk mother, Alice, who’s described as “the family spittoon.” The miracle of Julia’s pregnancy (dealt with in a similarly uncringing fashion) turns everyone, miraculously, into palatable characters, though it feels like a trick in the end.
Colloquial, and reveling in the plainspoken stupid: a novel that feels depressingly like what the future might hold for American letters.