This is an odd book, in some ways very good and in others slightly weird. It certainly kept me reading to the end, anyway.
Lucy, the central character and a 38-year-old librarian, is a car crash – or perhaps more accurately a car out of control – colliding with all sorts of people and their lives. She moves from Phoenix to Venice Beach, the American one, to help out her sister, Annika, who is worried about her following the breakup of her relationship with a man called Jamie while, coincidentally, needing a dog sitter.
Lucy is also struggling to complete a thesis on the works, or rather the gaps in the works, of the classical poet Sappho. Her nonsensical premise is that we can understand the poems better by the gaps where they have been lost over time which she wants to treat as intentional erasures. However, it then becomes clearer that gaps and spaces are quite significant in Lucy’s life particularly in respect of relationships.
She is brutally self-destructive, she wishes she had married Jamie but she is the one who wanted a different kind of relationship. When they split up she is first happy, then sad and then hysterical. As she works through a catalogue of men, mostly highly unsuitable, she repeats the pattern, first intrigued and then at the first hint of affection, stability or longevity she goes into destruct mode. She likes being on the edge of falling in love but doesn’t like being there.
Alongside her story, we also hear about her women’s group led by Dr Jude, think lost causes and desperate cases, with parallel tales of their inability to make permanent, loving relationships with men who are bad choices, shiftless and, sometimes, probably quite nice! A major theme of the novel is how these various women need sex and men but constantly find themselves in the empty spaces, like the gaps in Sappho’s work, between relationships. It doesn’t end well for them with suicide attempts, self-hatred and self-pity but it makes for entertainment of a sort as they report the disastrous failings arising from their dating sites, hangups about tennis coaches and toy boys and worse.
The book takes a turn when Lucy meets Theo, initially an attractive night swimmer but then a merman. Things are looking good for Lucy and Theo apart from some obvious problems in developing a full and exotic relationship with a large fish but they have their moments until it starts to appear that Theo would actually like Lucy to join him at the bottom of the sea which would seemingly involve her being dead!
Lucy finally decides against this but not before she has killed her sister’s diabetic dog with tranquilizer abuse and neglect. It is telling that she can’t even manage this relationship without messing it up. She is clearly a fish out of water herself!
By the end of the book not a lot is resolved. She has decided to rewrite her thesis as a kind of narrative, filling in Sappho’s gaps but has lost her funding to complete it and has returned to her sister’s house where she does not appear to be all that welcome. There isn’t really any sense of a positive resolution for her.
What makes her character interesting is that she isn’t just pumped full of low self esteem like Eleanor Oliphant or incompetent in making relationships but she is something much worse – as well as being clinically depressed, of course. She says unpleasant things to people, derides her friends and leaves one of her group to attempt suicide as she has a date to look forward to. Its intriguing though for the reader wondering where this will all end and you don’t really expect it to be quite so wet!
The book is funny in a black, sardonic way and visceral in its description of her encounters. I’m not quite sure who I’d want to recommend it to and I think most book clubs would struggle but it is an interesting and plausible read about a woman on the edge or, possibly, half way over!
(This book was published in May 2018. I received a review copy via NetGalley from the publishers, Hogarth, Random House.)