Somewhere around page 55, our first-person narrator, Isabel Moore, chaperoning a fifth-grade nature camp, opines: “You know what it’s going to be like. The psychological warfare of the girls. The grievous bodily injuries the boys will inflict on one another.”
Wow. It’s unusual for fiction writers to state their novels’ theses so openly. I’d find the honesty refreshing, if the book wasn’t so trying.
Isabel’s life has gone haywire since her friend Josie’s death. Her limp-rag husband has moved out, their eleven-year-old daughter has become a sullen teenager, and her mother is steering her into another relationship before her first is formally over. But there’s a seeping wound at Isabel’s core, one she hasn’t yet seen clearly. If she doesn’t address it, it’ll spill over, tainting everybody and everything she loves.
Reading Lauren Fox's third novel, I practically felt the author daring me to fling the manuscript. She ramrods unpleasant characters into contrived situations, tells their stories in stilted prose, and evidently cares little for logic, sequence, or comprehensibility. Like an MFA thesis, we never stop being aware of the text as a made thing.
First, Isabel is an aggressively unpleasant person. She uses sarcasm and flippant one-liners to keep others at arm’s length and avoid taking personal psychological responsibility for anything: her relationships, her job, her life. In flashbacks to while Josie’s alive, such sarcasm makes her appear playful, but annoying. After Josie’s death, it edges into scorn and mockery. In her early forties, she sounds stuck in high-school “mean girls” mode.
Second, Fox’s excessively polished prose gives the impression of aggressive workshopping and focus testing, which denies Isabel the opportunity for even one legitimate insight. We cannot even regard her as an unreliable narrator, because we cannot see her as human. Not through her slick lines which emphasize her as authorial stand-in, the dialog as precise as Hollywood script doctoring, and her metaphors redolent of ample time for revision.
The confluence of Fox’s consciously constructed writing and Isabel’s manifestly irksome character comes across in exchanges like this, with her loving but tediously passive husband:
"''Iz,' he whispers, the nickname that sounds like an existential proclamation. 'I need you.'As this exchange undoubtedly conveys, Isabel’s every personal interaction is about establishing dominance. She doesn’t converse, she engages in word skirmishes. Through such battles, we learn quickly that Isabel completely dominates her husband, and is dominated by her mother. This revelation follows quickly upon the discovery that Isabel is Jewish and her husband isn’t. Like we couldn’t tell.
"And I laugh out loud. Who's writing your lines? Need? Need! I suck in my stomach at the sound of that word."
Jewish Mother stereotypes, however, vanish almost without a ripple among recovery group stereotypes, rebellious daughter stereotypes, bereavement stereotypes. The accumulating weight of familiar boilerplates makes reading difficult, because we less immerse ourselves in Fox’s story, than recognize the tropes. I wondered why this all felt so familiar. Then I realized: Fox here uses a less Y-chromosome-ish version of Ben Marcus’s playbook.
It grows difficult even to find a story. In flashback, Isabel and Josie mock a children’s TV program that lacks conflict, where things just happen. Perhaps Fox here tacitly acknowledges her low-stakes tenor. Her narrative primarily consists of scenes montaged together out of sequence. Though conflict exists, mainly of Isabel’s own making, she never persuades me anything matters, even to her.
This slippery time sense infects Isabel’s storytelling. She slips between present and past tense, not necessarily consecutively; and her grasp on “now” seems tenuous. She’ll reveal something, and its context for months or years afterward, then continue like she hasn’t just stepped outside her own storytelling: "That's what my brain felt like on the day of my best friend's funeral and for many weeks after." Sorry, what?
Lauren Fox has received generous praise from critics and fellow writers. It’s easy to see why: she writes for readers deeply immersed in words and stories, not for mainstream audiences. She happily excludes readers who lack time and experience enough for her collocution. I’m an avid reader. So if I have difficulty caring, something’s gone deeply, seriously wrong.