There is much to admire about Christine Schutt's Prosperous Friends, but not a whole lot to love. It's a cold book, and bone thin. It's sparse in the way that a winter tree is sparse--unfruitful and hard, all excess life discarded to survive the conditions. Once I started to read it, I became addicted to it. But I also wanted to take it into a field to bury it and leave it far away from me.
Prosperous Friends is the story of two marriages. Ned and Isabel are young, attractive, and full of promise. "Full of promise" is about all they are, though, as neither of them is actualizing their potential. They are writers--they met in an MFA program—and while Ned releases promising short story collections, the grand work that will make his name and fully utilize his talents eludes him. Isabel was considered the most promising student in her program, but outside of the program she has no discipline, no drive, and no publishing credits. Their marriage, too, was promising, but dissolved into sexual dissatisfaction and Isabel's dying ambitions.
The other marriage belongs to Clive and Dinah. It's another artistic marriage—Clive is a painter who wants to use Isabel as his model and his mistress, and a poet who decides to ignore Clive's infidelities. They are older, and somewhat happy. Except that Dinah is what you would call a problem drinker, sneaking vodka into her morning juice and Clive is a cold and uncaring father. There are a few other marriages scattered about. Ned's former lover is now married to a man for his money, and she is flagrantly unfaithful. There's a rather grim older couple who own a B&B, presented, I suppose, as the best we can hope for in the world of this book: "He likes to nettle her, she knows, which is another way to love."
The psychological insight of Prosperous Friends is particularly acute; Schutt focuses her gaze like a laser. Schutt is very interesting when writing about Isabel's sexual problems. In a contemporary relationship, there is a cultural emphasis on sex. Women are supposed to know exactly what they like; they are supposed to be sexually fulfilled and experimental. The brief exchanges between Ned and Isabel after sex are presented as haikus of dissatisfaction, saying volumes in only a few words. "'You were close, I thought.' 'I thought, too.'"
I asked Schutt about the pressure of sexual performance on today's woman, and she wrote back: "The phenomenon of orgasm is one I have long gnawed at for the simple reason that for some women the experience isn’t always so readily accomplished, yet these women are often made to feel failed. Terms such as frigid and repressed that attach to the non-orgasmic woman only compound this sense of failure. Ned sees Isabel as missing out on coupling’s mission, which makes Isabel unhappy. Whether she is or is not failed—maybe simply slow to conclude?—I can’t say."
But then would the marriage be happy if the sex weren't such a problem? "They would probably not be so miserable, or at least they would be miserable about other matters—the estate might not be flush with game or the Prince’s ball a disappointment. Certainly there would be other intrigues, some of larger import." And certainly the most obvious problem of a relationship stands in for all of those other minor and major disappointments, the ones that are harder to talk about, and harder to resolve.
It's a grim world that Schutt presents, without even a glimmer of satisfaction or a dynamic that works. Her choice of protagonists, I fear, limits the book a great deal. By choosing writers and artists—MFA graduates, of all things—the world she creates becomes a stiflingly insular one. Isabel and Ned seem to do no real work, and other than a brief allusion to family money, it's unclear how they live. Isabel is in such a droop, one wishes she had to go out into the world as a maid or a plumber—just do something other than the routine, which Isabel describes as "book dry and predictable." "They involved his reading in the morning and her writing awake at their shared desk, a walk after lunch, then her reading, his writing, and tea, and afterward more reading, sometimes to each other before the making of dinner." Clive and Dinah have this problem, too, with their multiple houses and their lazy afternoons contemplating goat cheese. It's a privileged world, and it's presented as if under glass. The many passages of Prosperous Friends that hurt are so cutting and vivid, but lose their power when the book as a whole is cut off from the reader. And the writing is so, well, frigid, that Schutt never really writes in a door or a bridge to help us gain access.
There is a grand tradition of writing about bad marriages, ill-fit and tormented. I asked Schutt why she thinks we still find the subject so fascinating after all these years. She wrote back, "We are interested, I guess, because watching the dissolution of someone else’s marriage is a bit like theater: we, as observers, come out of the experience relieved and alive and well enough to tell the tale."
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.