Autobiographical work from novelist/screenwriter Yglesias (Dr. Neruda’s Cure for Evil, 1996, etc.) chronicles a man’s confrontation with the imminent death of his wife.
The novel begins with the 1975 meeting of precocious young novelist Enrique Sabas and beautiful, artistic Margaret Cohen in his walk-up Greenwich Village apartment, then flashes forward to the novel’s present, when she begs him to help her die rather than let her suffer anymore from terminal cancer. From there, odd-numbered chapters chronicle the couple’s courtship and flawed marriage; even-numbered ones return to the present, as Enrique, now a successful screenwriter, searches for the strength to help his wife bid loved ones farewell and die with dignity. The flashbacks illuminate Enrique’s psychology but give the narrative a disjointed quality. The back story devolves into confessional: Enrique blames himself for unhappiness in their marriage, breast-beating over his lack of sexual self-esteem due to occasional impotence—which makes an absurd combination with a libido depicted as so ravenous that it has strained his relationship with Margaret. Enrique’s painful honesty about his pathological self-consciousness and solipsism might, in lighter doses, pass for self-deprecation, but when he tells us all about the technological wonder of his Treo smartphone before turning his attention to his dying wife, he is both unlikable and impossible to take seriously. Granted, he’s under extreme emotional duress. The frequency with which his mind wanders over trite details unrelated to the dire matters at hand, however, make it exceedingly hard to buy into the tragic scenario the author has set up—that Enrique has only recently become aware that his wife is the love of his life. Near the end, past and present scenes alternate with greater rapidity, contrasting early episodes of romance and sex with the brutal details of Margaret’s progress toward death. Yglesias knows how to pluck the heartstrings but flounders in the execution.
A would-be tragedy that plays unsuccessfully on the inherent fascination with sex and death.