Saturday, June 29, 2013

"The Tell," by Hester Kaplan

I was very taken with Hester Kaplan’s collection of short stories, “The Edge of Marriage,” which I wrote about here on 2/5/13. So I was happy to read that she had a new novel, “The Tell” (Harper Perennial, 2013). This is a rich, “thick” (to use the anthropological term) description of a marriage, a marriage that seems to be very good, but turns out to be vulnerable to danger, in this case in the form of an aging male former television star who moves in next door. Mira is an artist; Owen is a teacher. They are not terribly prosperous, but they are doing fine, living in the house she grew up in, and seem quite happy. When Wilton becomes their neighbor, he insinuates himself into their lives, although it isn’t clear what he wants beyond company, and sympathy about his estrangement from his adult daughter. Gradually he -- purposely or unconsciously -- precipitates a rift in their marriage, as Mira becomes drawn into his quest to win back the estranged daughter, and as she joins him on his frequent trips to a casino. It is unclear if there is a sexual element in Mira and Wilton’s relationship, but if there is, that is not the main issue in the rift. The main problem is the erosion of trust, the lack of honesty that enters Mira’s and Owen’s marriage. Wilton too has his demons, which he tries to address not only with gambling and with usurping Mira's time and attention, but with compulsively rewatching episodes of the old television show in which he starred; in a disturbing counterpoint, Mira too watches these episodes over and over, late at night as well. Yet Kaplan does not make Wilton a pure villain; we see his sadness and we sympathize with him too. He had his moments in the bright light of fame, and now – although financially secure – he subsists emotionally on the recognition he occasionally receives from, say, a woman in the supermarket who excitedly remembers him and his television show, and perhaps asks for his autograph. There is a sad and unsettling tension between the initial seeming normality of the three main characters, and the increasing abnormality of their behavior and the way they live and relate to each other and to the world. Kaplan shows enormous insight into the motivations of her characters, although never over-explaining. She is a wonderful writer. I found the book powerful, but (and?) I was somewhat shaken by the story, itself a proof of the effectiveness of Kaplan’s writing.

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