Strong (Burning the Sea, 2002) presents a disturbing and erotic narrative about the lives of an oddly matched married couple who host a teenage girl for the summer.
Ray Shepard is a prominent architect who marries Evelyn, a former circus employee/manicurist with a dark past, after he meets her while both attend a show under the big top. Evelyn’s arms and torso are heavily tattooed, and she keeps her skin hidden from Ray’s colleagues and friends; but Ray is sexually aroused by the images and colors beneath her long sleeves and buttoned-up collars. Evelyn knows she doesn’t fit into Ray’s privileged world and believes that his peers are more judgmental than her naïve husband realizes. Her clumsy attempts to adapt end in failure and resentment on her part, but Ray innocently believes that once his colleagues and friends get to know his wife, they’ll understand exactly why he married her. Enter Ingrid, a rebellious teenager who’s been suspended from a nearby boarding school for the summer after being caught with alcohol. Unconventional and emotionally isolated, she’s drawn to the flawed couple and becomes a pivotal participant in their dysfunctional world. Ingrid and Ray set up office in a room once called the fainting room, and she types for him while he works on a book about architecture. They soon discover common ground—a passion for hard-boiled detective stories—and Ingrid begins to construct her own fictional character, Detective Slade, a tough, observant character who comes to life as she tries to cope with her own uncertainties. Ray is disturbed by his increasing sexual attraction to Ingrid, and Ingrid’s titillated by her feelings for Evelyn. An increasingly murky and uncomfortable tale, Strong’s characters are complex and disturbing. Evelyn’s past attempts to fit in with her circus family are as darkly amusing as her attempts to be the perfect homemaker. Ray’s conventional upbringing, and his one early attempt at outright rebellion, contrasts well with Ingrid’s character, so full of feelings of alienation and anger.
A deliciously creepy and intense story.