Four or five years ago, publishers seemed to be releasing novels about zombies every five seconds. Okay, the novels weren’t all about zombies–there were vampires and werewolves in there, too–and maybe not every five seconds (every ten seconds), but you get my drift: lots of novels about zombies.
Amy Grace Loyd’s The Affairs of Others is not a novel about zombies. But it is set in Brooklyn. Lately I find that just about every other book description I read is about a character or set of characters who live in Brooklyn. Mostly, the authors of these novels also live in–you guessed it–Brooklyn. Brooklyn is the new zombies.
Not that I have anything against Brooklyn. Over half the people I follow on Twitter seem to live there. I have a dear, longtime friend who lives there. It has many terrific book stores and restaurants. It has lots of wealthy people and gentrification but also some borderline affordable neighborhoods where young creative types gather. It has parks with actual trees.
Celia Cassill lives in Brooklyn, in a brownstone apartment building that she bought and renovated after losing her husband to cancer five years ago. Celia is only in her mid-thirties, and the couple was childless. She has enough money so that she does not have to work. Her building has three tenants: a retired ferryboat captain, a young(ish) married couple with no children, and a middle-aged school teacher, George, who decides to travel to France and sublet his apartment to his friend, Hope, who is going through a separation from her marriage of 25 years.
I’m not going to lie to you: this novel is filled with first-world problems and angsty navel gazing. While being widowed at a young age (or any age, really) is surely a tragic thing, and while grief often takes its own individual course (five stages of grieving be damned), Celia is comfortable enough financially that she can isolate herself from much of the world as she chooses, which leaves her a lot of time to think about herself and about her grief. Hope (the person who sublets the apartment, not the thing with feathers) becomes something of an object of infatuation for Celia and disrupts her quiet life not only with her beauty and warmth but also with her own…oh, what’s the word I want for it…idiocy.
Why idiocy? Hope’s husband, a highly successful investment banker, has left her for a younger woman. By choice, Hope has moved out of their palatial Brooklyn townhome and into George’s apartment, where she takes up with a former lover who sexually and emotionally debases her. Hope’s two adult children are distraught and concerned for her, but Hope seems only to care about…hollowing herself out by having rough sex (accompanied by really nice wine and cheese, of course).
I hate that I felt this way, but much of the time I was reading I just wanted Celia and Hope to get a grip. They live in an interesting city (Brooklyn!), they both have enough money to do pretty much anything they want (Hope more so than Celia), and this is what they choose? To be isolated and debased? Like I said, first-world angst.
So then why did I keep reading? Because Celia is not completely annoying. In fact, overall she’s rather compelling, even if she has some annoying habits, like picking up strangers on the subway and having sex with them. She may be self-pitying and a bit stupid, but she’s also an interested and interesting observer (the novel is in first person), that sort of literary outsider infatuated with–yes, the affairs of others that I tend to enjoy. And to give her credit, even Celia finds Hope’s desire for debasement ridiculous on some level. But the best parts of the book occur when Celia is focused on her other tenants, the ferryboat captain Mr. Coughlan and the couple Angie and Mitchell. These two small subplots give the book a more generous viewpoint and keep it from becoming like that one person you knew in college who had everything (looks, brains, talent, money, connections) but who did nothing but complain and wallow in self-pity.
The book’s style and structure reminded me of reading something by Lydia Davis. If you’ve read Davis and enjoyed her work, you know I mean that as high praise. Loyd’s episodic narrative is fully fleshed-out, and she turns a phrase beautifully. Unfortunately, I only have an ARC* and cannot offer any quotes as evidence. Her masterful pacing also lends to the book’s intimate feel, and because of it she is able to turn a bit of a trick.
First-world angst of the privileged abounds in this novel, and in the hands of a lesser writer the book would probably keep on going down its relentless course until someone is homeless or institutionalized or dead. We’ve all read those novels. Instead, Loyd lifts everybody up out of themselves and gives them all to each other. I won’t say how, and I won’t say this book doesn’t have moments of real sadness, but the ending has a real sense of celebration about it, an awakening. Three out of five stars.
*I received an e-ARC of The Affairs of Others from NetGalley.