“… as I struggled to stay the course, all this goodness and responsibility; it seeded an impulse toward endless badness and rebellion.”
Who is Rich Fischer? He is many selves struggling with each other, full of desires that go against the ‘goodness and responsibilities’ of a husband and father. He is tied down and yet when let loose to teach a conference on cartooning at a week-long conference, full of like minded artistic individuals he is reunited with his lover, Amy. Too, he is disappointed in himself and his cartooning. Once a success, that part of his life seems to be dwindling and his failure is like a poison seeping into his marriage. Crazy in love with his children but wondering if his very family serves as a block to another life, to his creativity. “Was this as close to love as I was ever going to get? The closer I got the more I wanted to destroy the things I loved.” A man who acts out against his marriage, causing rifts. Getting older, life closing in, his creativity possibly dying, envious of those just starting out and with much more success than him, disappointed with himself, this conference feels like an alternate universe. This is where people can set their true bohemian selves free, indulging in every pleasure while focusing on their art, or on forbidden partners.
Does fate punish the adulterers, serving as a wake up call to hold fast to the life they themselves chose to make? Is it possible to rein in one’s nature and desires in order to sustain respectability, to be a loyal spouse and exemplary parent? This novel doesn’t just expose the longings Rich struggles with, it’s about how diminished marriage can make a solitary person feel, how it can chip at one’s creative side, burying any mysterious parts some of us wish to cling to. Marriage splits you open from the skull down, there is nothing that goes ‘unmeasured’. The very moment you have children, you are exposed and open to judgement. You are both a success and a failure. It’s hard to be charming and deeply fascinating when your partner knows your bathroom habits, when you’ve let them down countless times. But the flip side is the comfort of knowing you are loved despite all the disgusting parts of your nasty self. Children are a chance to live your childhood over again, to be someone’s hero. In Rich’s life, they keep him grounded in his marriage, and expand his heart to bursting. But Rich is conflicted. It’s easy to fall passionately in ‘love’ if you can call it that, with someone you don’t have to share the bleaker side of life with. What bigger indulgence than sharing passion, and having another person to complain about the crappy things in your lives without having to truly be there through the ugly stuff? It’s fantasy, isn’t it? Fantasy made flesh, but are he and Amy ever fully present in each other’s lives enough to really be ‘in love’? Yet there is intimacy, with Amy he can empty so much of himself that needs to be let out. “Giving voice to every thought in my head, having a place for that, meant a lot to me.” In every marriage, bills, children, work, life takes over, wears you down and it’s not always easy to be an ear, especially when you are resentful of your spouses laziness or failures. Sex, the sex that starts to feel monotonous, if you’re even having it because with the demands of life and young children sometimes you just don’t feel erotic and sex is the last thing on your mind. So many marriages have such intermissions from intimacy, we’re all human.
When Amy is injured playing softball, his feelings are in turmoil. To make things better, he purchases a bracelet for his lover that costs his family, emptying out their bank account. Amy O’Donnell’s life is much more comfortable than Rich’s- a mother of three, married to a distant, unloving Wall Street titan but she isn’t any happier. Yet this purchase cost even his daughter’s preschool fees in the fall. Is he unraveling, letting his passion get the best, or worst of him? ” My thoughts were slow and bleating and obstructed, but I noted, finally, that Amy had been a kind of home, a vessel for my discombobulated mind, that my own family treated me like a footstool but this stranger had cared for my soul.” Does Rich just enjoy suffering? Interesting how he relates to Amy’s complaints, likely similar to how his own wife Robin often feels about him. There is a lot about Robin too, because he does love her. Early in their relationship he notes, “I would miss her and then forget her, and have to remember her all over again.” More, he felt “Welcoming Robin back into my life was like rejoining a cult: special rules, rituals, foods, a certain way of speaking, figuring out what was permitted, how to avoid those actions now deemed wrong.” The same can be said of any relationship and more, of our our own families, we are all little cults. What a fantastic insightful thought!
Rich’s love for his children is evident in the beginning of the novel. “Their lightness and willingness and spirit and stupidity surprised me, their readiness to bravely step into a world they couldn’t understand, packed with swimming pools, speeding cars, blazing sun, fanged dogs, stinging bees, heat, silent anger, slammed doors….” any man that sees through his children’s eyes this keenly is crazy about his family. As Rich fights himself, we get a heck of a glimpse into the mind of a man as he enters the middle of his life and questions everything he has made of it, and decides what is to come. He is selfish, kind, tender, cold, wise, stupid, and as bumbling as any of us. Well done.
Publication Date: July 4, 2017
Random House Publishing