The first novel from short story writer Black (If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, 2010) tries to parse the intimacy, love, betrayals and resentments that comprise any long relationship.
From the first sentences, it's clear that narrator Gus (short for Augusta) is writing after her husband Owen’s death, although the novel covers his last months. Together since their 20s, painter Gus, now 47, and 51-year-old writer Owen didn't feel the need to marry until a few years ago, when the relationship was rocked by Gus’ brief affair—an affair she blames on her distress over Owen’s inability to father children. When the affair ended, she confessed all to Owen and they recommitted to each other. For the last two years, the couple, now legally joined, has lived in happy near isolation on a small farmstead somewhere outside Philadelphia. When middle-aged divorcée Alison moves in next door, she disrupts their Eden, already fraught with marital tension; despite her avowals of deep intimacy with Owen, Gus resents the fact that his writer’s block means she can't discuss her work with him and she obviously can’t mention the emails she’s been getting from a former art student who happens to be her ex-lover’s daughter. Drawing away from Owen, Gus spends increasing time with Alison, an aspiring painter whose husband abused her. The women discuss art, but Gus also starts confiding in Alison about Owen in ways that feel like a second betrayal. Then Alison’s daughter Nora shows up. Gus, whose own mother died when she was a small child, is jealous of their mother-daughter intimacy. She also senses that Nora, an aspiring writer who admires Owen’s books, is a sexual threat.
Black captures the nooks and crannies of Gus’ psyche, both self-aware and self-justifying, but doesn’t allow poor Owen space to breathe; her narrow focus, while often acutely insightful, makes for a claustrophobic reading experience.