This is an arresting novel, inventive and grim, yet playful with its characters. Characters that do double and triple duty. Life is long and hard and takes strength and perseverance. And where does it get you in the end? This is a novel of a most profound dissatisfaction, of a deadening inability to connect.
We begin with David Pepin, who dreams of killing his wife, Alice. Maybe. He writes that he dreams of killing his wife, but gets stuck in the middle of the novel he’s writing and doesn’t know how to end it. In fact, the first line of Pepin’s book, is the first line of Adam Ross’ novel in progress. The unanswered question (or one of them at any rate): Is this Adam Ross’ novel, or is it David Pepin’s writer’s block magnum opus?
When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.
Writer’s block? Or lack of nerves? His wife Alice is obese and on the diet-gain weight treadmill. She’s stuck as well. The Pepin’s are well off, David being the owner of a video game company that makes money hand over fist. Alice just won’t tell David what she wants.
Ward Hastroll is a police detective whose wife Hannah takes to her bed and refuses to leave it. Hastroll’s wife also won’t tell him what she wants, even though he asks her repeatedly. These marriages have a serious lack of communication. And guess who Hastroll’s partner is?. Sam Sheppard. Right, that Sam Sheppard – former Doctor and wife murderer. Or was he. After he was acquitted, he became a cop (in this novel, anyway). His murdered wife Marilyn may have had an affair with a look-alike, a handy-man of theirs. Or she may have been just planning to. Or perhaps it was merely a fantasy of hers. So these three “couples” have many things in common, not the least of which is that Sheppard and Hastroll are investigating the death (suicide? murder?) of Alice who has died of asphyxiation due to her peanut allergy. Did she ingest peanuts on purpose? Did David drive her to do it by withholding her medicines? (she’s a clinically depressive personality). The two detectives bring their own baggage regarding marital bliss, or lack thereof, to their investigation.
The time line weaves back and forth, so that we know the difficulties of each couple (there are even detailed sections on the Sam Sheppard case, which are fascinating – the best parts of the book). And it’s a fun house full of mirrors so that just when you think you’re on solid ground, you find yourself slipping into the void. It’s a Quaker Oats box of a novel to be sure.
Pepin and his wife had met at college in a class focused on the films of Alfred Hitchcock. And there’s a Rear Window kind of feel to Ross’ novel – furtive spying (Hastroll does it, Pepin does it, Sheppard does it) and being relegated to observing life, bound to non-participation. In another class on feminism (he enrolled in that one as a way to see more of Alice), the opening lecture, by the (beautiful) lecturer makes some prescient observations on the Sam Sheppard case.
This is a novel that could benefit from repeated readings, yet even if you grasp only parts of it, there’s enough to sink your teeth into. It’s a complicated mix, but it doesn’t leave you feeling as if you’re lost. Not all your questions may be answered (even if you know the right questions to ask) and that’s purposeful. After all, the novel has a few alternate endings, and each of them are as plausible as the next. Mr. Peanut, by the way, is what Alice calls her premature fetus (she has several miscarriages, and is unable to have children). It also refers to the can of Planters Peanuts with which she kills herself (or is killed by her husband). That, in a err, nutshell, is what the book feels like.