Rush’s third novel is an outlier—a slim book not set in Botswana—but his concerns with our carnal and intellectual lives remain pleasurably, provocatively intact.
The modern classic Mating (1991) and its 2003 follow-up, Mortals, were hothouse experiments in human behavior: Take a bright couple, drop them in a foreign milieu, and watch their primal instincts slowly emerge. This book does much the same thing, though it’s set in Rush’s native United States. At its center is Ned, a middle-aged activist who has hastened to the castlelike home of his college friend Douglas, who has died in a riding-mower accident. Following close behind is his wife, Nina, who is outraged at Ned for leaving just as she reaches the peak in her fertility cycle; she wants to conceive. Its life-and-death themes settled fast, the novel largely explores the personalities of Ned and three other friends of Douglas who have arrived for the memorial. Douglas was a lifelong provocateur, and in college, this clan was hellbent on undoing social norms, but reconvened, they largely have memories of old bons mots and a widow who’s trying to stage-manage the memorial to the last utterance. The setting is funereal, and Rush dwells much on the futility of warring against our natures, yet this book abounds in wit, particularly in its exploration of Ned and Nina’s marriage; alternating between their perspectives, Rush ping-pongs their thoughts about lust, love and accomplishment. The brevity of the story highlights its contrived setup—the everybody-stuck-in-the-castle arrangement has an unintentional whiff of an Agatha Christie mystery—and a subplot involving Douglas’ troubled teen son is left frustratingly unresolved. But this is a weaker novel only in comparison to Rush’s earlier triumphs. His skill at revealing our interior lives is undiminished.
Easier to lug around than its predecessors but with plenty of heft regardless.