Monday, September 28, 2015

Death Clears Its Throat

Wendy Corsi Staub, Blood Red: Mundy's Landing Book One

Rowan Mundy has achieved the middle-class dream: handsome husband, three distinctive kids, and home ownership in her Upstate New York hometown. But for fourteen years she’s concealed the frightening day she almost committed adultery. Almost. Now somebody’s sent Rowan a reminder, reawakening long-buried paranoia. She feels her world constricting, and well she should, since her stalker has planned a bloody revenge, and the final blade will soon fall.

Wendy Corsi Staub is one of America’s most prolific authors, having over eighty titles on her résumè, including romances, YA novels, and her signature psychological thrillers. Her stories mainly focus on domestic themes. This one exposes resentments sunk deep beneath a seemingly flawless marriage. Her idea, and her opening chapter, promise smart characterization with sharp Freudian edges. Her unfolding narrative, unfortunately, makes me shout “Get on with it!”

Fourteen years ago, Rowan and a neighboring househusband, feeling trapped by suburban Westchester doldrums, commenced an emotional affair. Happy circumstance prevented them consummating their infidelity. Rowan successfully buried her indiscretions, relocated her family, and reinvented herself as a schoolteacher and mommy. But a threatening package, wrapped in a newspaper from the day she almost transgressed, appears in the mail, threatening everything she’s achieved.

Mysterious Casey somehow knows everything Rowan did. Casey blames her for, um, something, and has cultivated an elaborate revenge scheme guaranteed not only to hurt Rowan, but also humiliate her throughout her hometown. Casey has stalked Rowan relentlessly, coaxing her into snares of her own making. Until everything bears fruit, though, Casey seeks satisfaction by brutally murdering fair-skinned, redheaded single women. Women who remind Casey of Rowan.

Wendy Corsi Staub
Staub’s story begins well. The tension between Rowan’s WASPy self-recrimination, and Casey’s BTK-like cruelty, promises an interesting tale contrasting the violence we do ourselves, versus the violence we do others. Staub promises that, anyway. She could actually trim her 400-page book by nearly half if Rowan simply stopped believing she could fight her monstrous, invisible enemy single-handed, told her husband the truth, and accepted her loved ones’ support.

Instead, Rowan internalizes everything. She attempts to uncover her enigmatic stalker without telling anybody who doesn’t already realize what she’s done. This means contacting her almost-lover and the only person she’s ever confessed to, her harshly judgmental sister. She stacks lies atop other lies to prevent her husband and son realizing what she’s done. Soon she’s lying so readily, so glibly, she cannot remember whom she already told which lies.

Before long, observant readers realize the edifice of untruths she’s constructed, and the constant suspicion she requires to maintain that edifice, has become more destructive than the infidelity which never actually happened. We lose sympathy, wondering why she repeatedly compounds her predicament by adding new deceptions to old. Worse, these deceptions add no new information, simply keeping the narrative circling for hundreds of pages while advancing only incrementally.

Meanwhile, Casey’s spree becomes increasingly disproportional to Rowan’s detective work. Staub carefully prevents us learning anything concrete about Casey: between the androgynous name, Staub’s avoidance of pronouns, and Casey’s masterful disguises, we know less the more Staub explains (sorry, Laurie R. King did that non-reveal better). Only one fact remains, that Casey demonstrates skill and pleasure in murdering pretty redheads with straight razors. Are there no brunettes in Staub’s world?

Staub further slows the narration by introducing needless viewpoint characters. Though we mostly discover this story through Rowan and Casey’s eyes, Staub periodically shifts perspectives. This makes sense when, say, Rowan’s husband or son offers needed context for the ongoing story. But Staub introduces new characters, gives them long expository chronicles, permits them only minor contributions, then never uses them again. I scratch my head, wondering: “What did that contribute?”

Please don’t misunderstand. This book isn’t awful. Staub delivers moments of genuine surprise and touching character. These moments usually happen at chapter breaks, and Staub has unusually long chapters for genre fiction. This means that Staub’s most affecting moments happen sporadically, after long discursions where Rowan glumly studies her shoes and Casey foreshadows morbid carnage. The overall texture resembles long, languid hammocks between moments of remarkable humane power.

Just shy of page 200, Rowan thinks to herself “She’s never felt so alone in her life.” I realized: I don’t care. Rowan’s story starts well, but as it continues, it stops advancing. Watching her dig herself deeper, when everything would resolve itself if she’d simply tell one person the truth and accept help, gets repetitive. A story I initially enjoyed gets wearing. Simply, I lost interest and stopped caring.

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