About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

#77 - Mr. Peanut

Mr. Peanut, by Adam Ross (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

Summary: "David Pepin has loved his wife, Alice, since the moment they met in a university seminar on Alfred Hitchcock. After thirteen years of marriage he still can't imagine living without her -- yet he obsessively contemplates her demise. Soon she is dead, and he is both deeply distraught and the prime suspect.

"The detectives investigating Alice's suspicious death have plenty of personal experience with conjugal enigmas: Ward Hastroll was happily married until his wife inexplicably became voluntarily and militantly bedridden; and Sam Sheppard is especially sensitive to the intricacies of marital guilt and innocence, having decades before been convicted and then exonerated of the brutal murder of his wife.

"Still, these men are in the business of figuring things out, even as Pepin's role in Alice's death grows even more confounding when they link him to a highly unusual hit man called Mobius. Like the Escher drawings that inspire the computer games David designs for a living, these complex, interlocking dramas are structurally and emotionally intense, subtle, and intriguing; they brilliantly explore the warring impulses of affection and hatred, and pose a host of arresting questions. Is it possible to know anyone fully, completely? Are murder and marriage two sides of the same coin, each endlessly recycling into the other? And what, in the end, is the truth about love?

"Mesmerizing, exhilarating, and profoundly moving, Mr. Peanut is a police procedural of the soul, a poignant investigation of the relentlessly mysterious human heart -- and a first novel of the highest order."

Opening Line: "When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself."

My Take: Yeah, after a 500+-page tome on the horrors of war and a much-shorter book so filled with higher-level math as to seem like another language, I think it's time for something a little lighter ... like a story about a guy who may or may not have murdered his wife, say.

Well, that was disappointing. The reviewers were all over this one; Scott Turow, in the New York Times, calls it "daring [and] arresting ... an enormous success -- forceful and involving, often deeply stirring and always impressively original." The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker, while not quite as laudatory, were nonetheless mostly positive. While I can't say I found it awful, I did end up wondering if these reviewers read the same book I did. Even Turow acknowledges that the novel's point of view is "overwhelmingly male." I don't object to this per se; heck, half the population is male. However, what all the reviewers seem to miss is that if you're offering a compelling meditation on marriage, it helps to have all your principals be at least reasonably sympathetic. In this area, Mr. Peanut falls far short of the mark. I usually avoid published reviews while I'm actually reading a book, lest they unduly influence my own experience, but here, I broke the rule about halfway through because I was desperate to see what others saw in the novel. Turow calls the three wives withholding, but that's not the half of it; both Alice and the voluntarily-bedridden Hannah Hastroll are so dramatic, manipulative, and uncommunicative that I just couldn't see why David and Ward didn't, to quote Dan Savage, DTMFA. A grown woman feels like she's become invisible to her husband, and just plain stops getting out of bed, letting her husband bring meals on a tray, for months on end? (How she washes or goes to the bathroom remain a mystery.) Another adult pitches constant temper tantrums, walking out on or refusing to speak to her partner for some perceived slight? I mean, really. For one character in a novel to behave like this could have been intriguing, an exploration of the complicated, sometimes dysfunctional pas de deux that evolves over time between long-married partners. For two unconnected characters to do it, and a third (Marilyn Sheppard) to take at least some steps in this direction, makes me wonder if Ross is working through some issues of his own here. (At least Marilyn, despite her unilateral decision to have a sexless marriage, is rendered with some sympathetic qualities; Alice has precious few, and Hannah none.)

This is really too bad, because the story otherwise raises some interesting issues. To what extent might both partners in a marriage be complicit in one partner's affair? How does infertility affect a couple's relationship? (Had Ross toned down Alice's histrionics, the part about her having a second-trimester miscarriage while on vacation would have been far more moving.) If you've ever imagined the death of someone you love, what kind of guilt do you carry if and when that person does die? Unfortunately, Mr. Peanut seems too busy scratching the surface of many different issues to really do any one of them justice.

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