An extended, excruciating romance with a married man derails a California graduate student in Huneven’s latest (Blame, 2009, etc.).
In the fall of 1981, Cressida Hartley moves up to her family’s weekend cabin in the Sierras with the hope of finishing her Ph.D. dissertation, even though she’s grown increasingly unenthusiastic about pursuing a career in economics. A lighthearted fling with the owner of the local lodge introduces her to the close-knit, not to say gossipy, community of year-round residents, who are censorious when Cress embarks on a dangerous relationship with Quinn Morrow, a married carpenter. He’s still reeling from the suicide of his father 10 months earlier, and Cress is the first person to notice. Sylvia, Quinn’s wife, is fragile and always needs to be sheltered; Quinn is yearning for someone who will listen to him. Huneven creates a detailed, moving portrait of two people who initially think they can have a no-strings affair but are drawn into something much more serious and damaging. Quinn leaves Sylvia, goes back, leaves again, goes back again; Cress ignores her dissertation, takes a job waitressing and waits around for him to make up his mind, alarming her friends and family with her deteriorating emotional and physical state. Huneven’s well-written narrative is emotionally credible, although Cress’ passivity becomes frustrating in the novel’s final third: She is reduced to the role of a mistress, waiting haplessly for occasional visits, as several years fly by. The final pages show her finishing her dissertation, embarking on a freelance journalism career and rebuilding her life, without ever losing “the feeling that a part of her had been left behind, as if her soul were invisibly married to Quinn.” The painfully sad ending suggests that he may have felt the same, but it didn’t do either of them any good.
Sensitive, reflective and uncomfortably true to life, with a wonderfully rich cast of supporting characters.