Debut from Lancelotta (stories: Here in the World, 2000) takes a gruesomely fascinating glimpse into the bruised psyche of a Baltimore woman burned out by a rough-going love affair.
At 30, jewelry-shop employee Martha is unambitious professionally and sexually; she wants nothing of her realtor lover Edward but his desirous presence. The two meet in bars, then return to Martha’s charmless inner-city apartment to indulge in nightly shenanigans only hinted at in oblique descriptions. Martha has rejected the conventional path expected of her by her timorous mother, somnambulant father, and good-girl younger sister Carly: she refuses to be a wife, mother, and possessor of a suburban home. Yet her last-ditch affair with Edward has “scraped [her] raw,” and she flees in emotional self-survival to begin a stark new life, opening up a jewelry store in a small town on the Gulf Coast. Lancelotta skillfully moves back and forth in time, mingling Martha’s Baltimore memories—visiting a carnival with her father, staggering home on countless nights following sex with one high-school loser after another, enduring grievous scenes with her jealously resentful sister (who meets and falls for Edward)—with an account of her pristine new existence living next door to a 22-year-old widow and her razor-witted mother-in-law. Martha is a character who beautifully succeeds in 3-D by virtue of operating in opposition to everything around her: her mother’s secretive past, her sister’s conflicted jealousy, the inability of the men she sleeps with to recognize her intuitive intelligence. “You do not want what you've been taught to want,” Martha recognizes with fatal satisfaction, and this is both a blessing and a curse. Lancelotta nails the spirit-sinking landscapes of Baltimore and a no-name southern town with a scintillating precision of detail.
Literary feminist readers will relish the smart, taut writing and terrifically tactile first-person narration.