The Great Gatsby is a classic with its unreliable narrator and its old money and its devastation and unavoidable tragedy. In Charles Dubow's debut novel, there are shades of Fitzgerald's masterpiece but the characters are more obvious and the tale and its presentation nothing special. It is no Great Gatsby. I really wanted to be wowed by this clear homage to one of my favorite books of all time, wanted to impressed like almost every other reviewer I've read so far. Instead I was bored and found myself getting angry and annoyed as I read along.
Harry and Maddy Winslow are a golden couple with the sort of charisma and glow in which everyone in their orbit wants to bask. Their marriage is perfect and their love for each other comfort in each others' presence, and contentment with their lives is palpable. Until it isn't. Because this is the tale of Harry, former college hockey standout, ace former military pilot, novelist and recent National Book Award Winner; and Maddy, gracious, effortless, extremely beautiful, and monied; and what happens when Harry, wanting more than the perfection he already seems to have, embarks on a completely pedestrian affair and devastates his own, his wife, and his fragile son's lives. Narrated by Maddy's childhood friend, the noble Walter, who has loved Maddy forever but has long settled back and contented himself with the reflected glow of the Winslow's enviable love and family, this is a story told long after the fact, pieced together by information left behind, things written by Harry, secondhand observation, speculations, and confidences made to Walter both at the time and after the events. Even though Walter was in fact one of the spectators of the situation, his relationship and loyalty to Maddy, plus the torch he has carried for her close on to forty some odd years, makes him suspect, obviously biased, in the telling.
One summer, twenty-six year old Claire is invited out to the Hamptons to stay with her wealthy, occasional boyfriend, Clive. While there she comes into the Winslows' orbit and falls for both of them, but especially for Harry. Given that she was dissatisfied with Clive, who admittedly is a jerk, when she arrived, it is no surprise that this callous and selfish young woman is eager and willing to be pulled into the Winslow's golden sphere. She ingratiates herself and starts being invited to come out to spend weekends with them, to frolic and play and generally have an enchanted time. Like Maddy, Claire is exceptionally beautiful in the way of youth but unlike Maddy, Claire does not come from money and she is enticed by all its trappings, setting her sights on Harry and even making an overt pass at him that he easily deflects. But because this is a tale of infidelity or "indiscretion," it is clear that Claire will in fact get her way even if it has to be delayed. And from the moment that Harry ends up in bed with this nubile, young thing, it is broadcast loud and clear where this novel is heading. There is no nuance, no surprise, and little anticipation.
Claire is a predator from the outset, using Clive and then easily dropping him for the more enticing prey of Harry. It almost makes the reader sorry for the ghastly, boorish Clive and certainly reeks of "come into my parlour said the spider to the fly" once Claire has set her sights on Harry. That is to say the outcome is entirely inevitable. Everything in the novel is completely, expectedly inevitable. It's a cliched situation without enough depth to the characters or the plot to rescue the whole. In fact, there really is no plot at all and as a character study, an anatomy of an affair, or a psychological look at the cost of infidelity, it is nothing special or new. The characters are unsympathetic. The writing is florid and overwrought. The dialogue is clunky and stilted. Harry and Claire's affair is boring to read about and the minute details of their sexual exploits were unappealing. Their overly introspective pillow talk had all the emotional range of giddy, immature teenagers and Claire's constant assertions that she never wanted to hurt Maddy but that she just couldn't give up Harry and Harry's reciprocal agreement would be better suited to high schoolers than to adults, one in her later twenties and one in his early forties.
And because I was already not enjoying the novel, every little thing jumped out at me and made me angrier. Dubow uses the metaphor of a dress rehearsal at one point but suggests that the similarity is like seeing the seats empty and the actors in their street clothes on stage. Um... That's not a dress rehearsal. And yes, that's a nit-pick on my part but this sort of thing is endemic. In giving birth to their son Johnny, Maddy is whisked away for an emergency episiotomy and a frantic Harry is kept from her because of this procedure. Another um... Having had one of these myself many a year ago, this is emphatically not how they are handled, not even close. Yes, more nit-picking but the devil is in the details. And frankly, I am bothered by the portrayal of Harry as unable and unwilling to stop Claire when she finally does seduce him. The rest of the novel is predicated on the fact that he was as attracted to her from the outset as she was to him but in reality, he was drunk and severely jetlagged when she took him back to her apartment and he does actually protest and try to stop before he is carried away by the wave of passion (which makes him come across as stupid and ruled solely by his penis, a whole new portrayal of him born in that exact moment). This does not absolve him of any guilt, mind you, since he inexplicably wakes up the next day not wracked with guilt but insatiable for Claire and ridiculously, completely smitten especially given his feelings just a day prior but it absolves him of any of the calculatedness in cheating that is assumed as the novel continues; it was never a decision for Harry, only one for Claire. Of course, because this is a novel about a continuing affair and not just a one night stand, we get more sweaty foreplay and slick sex between these two. We get the sloppily covered tracks, the weak and easily uncovered lies, and we get the damaging discovery of truth and the shamed acknowledgement of betrayal. In short, we get the story of every infidelity ever. We recognize the fall-out. And we know that there can be no happy endings.
I seem to be alone in my dislike of the book and everyone else is so captivated they never noticed the writing problems or the inconsistencies in the characters or any of the numerous things that got my back up. I'd love for someone I know to read this and tell me what you think. I may just be alone on this one. So far I sure seem to be.
For more information about Charles Dubow and the book follow him on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.