Monday, April 28, 2014

"Off Course," by Michelle Huneven

I remember that when I read Michelle Huneven’s first novel, “Round Rock,” I felt that I had “discovered” a new writer, because I hadn’t read any reviews of her books, and just ran across the book by chance. I couldn’t decide if she was only good, or in fact very good, but I certainly was riveted by her story of characters at a sort of rehab center for alcoholics. Later I read her rather different next novel, “Jamesland,” which attracted me not only because I liked the first novel, but because I couldn’t resist a novel so informed by and infused by the writings of Henry James, with whom the main character was fascinated, partly because he was a distant relative. Thus when I read reviews of Huneven’s new book, “Off Course,” I was primed to want to read it, and now have done so. This novel gripped me from the first page, and kept me interested throughout. It provides an interesting case of a mixture of academe, on the one hand, and a much less book-and-idea focused life, on the other hand. It has much to say about class, and how it affects our lives, overtly or more subtly. It also illuminates much about the lives of young women today, women in their late twenties who are educated and who are told they have all the choices in the world, but who for one reason or another can’t bring themselves to decide what they really want to do with their lives. Like women of the past, they sometimes fall into a sort of waiting stance: waiting for someone to decide for them and to bring meaning into their lives. In the case of this novel, the main character, Cress, goes to stay at her parents’ cabin in the Sierras in order to finish her PhD dissertation. She doesn’t get much writing done, but she soon gets drawn into the local community and into an intense, almost obsessive relationship with a married man. Like so many “other women,” she suffers as the relationship fluctuates, and as she waits for her lover to visit or to come back after their breakups. She is in fact waiting to find out what will happen; in other words, her life is on hold. Should she wait for Quinn, her lover, to leave his wife? Or just stay near him and take the scraps of time he can give her? Should she finish her dissertation and look for a college position? Should she just move somewhere completely different? I won’t tell you how it all works out, but it is quite an emotional ride. In the meanwhile, the small community in the Sierras becomes almost like another character, a quirky, multi-voiced character at that. This has been true in all three of the Huneven novels I have read: they are about communities and relationships, no matter how sometimes dysfunctional and changeable those communities are.

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