Sunday, October 19, 2014

Off Course by Michelle Huneven

A promising young woman gets distracted by her affair with an older married man

In the early eighties, Cressida Hartley retreats to her parents’ Sierra A-frame to finish her dissertation, though it's not very long before the isolated charming but hickish town starts to suck her in. She has a quick affair with life-loving bar owner, Jakey, but is taken aback when he turns out to be promiscuous. Later she meets the quiet hyper-masculine carpenter Quinn Morrow, at first becoming his walking companion, then the recipient of his gifts of house made bacon. Next there is a kiss and after that there is a full blown affair that shakes his marriage to the core, scandalizing the town. Quinn and Cressida keep trying to break up, but Quinn bounces between his much loved loyal wife and much loved exciting mistress. Only Cressida, not Quinn, feels the extreme disapproval from the other townsfolk. Instead of hightailing it out of the mountains and salvaging her professorial career, she moons around the redwoods as a waitress, wasting years of her life. It’s clear by the end of the book, while Cressida is nominally happy, she has never recovered from the drama of loving Quinn.

Like Huneven’s earlier novel Blame, the themes of time and what is the meaning of life slowly sneak up on you. I kept thinking, well, the activities of these people are interesting but the stakes are low, than I realized, no, the stakes are actually quite high. Cressida is wasting her life. Slow and steadily in a series of tiny decisions but the consequences are huge.

Huneven is really talented at world creation.  She brings to life this mountain town with its social hierarchies, quaint entertainments (singing and dancing but also adultery and alcoholism). The lives of the town people are correspondingly stunted, though they all seem very comfortable in their beautiful bubble.  The mountain people despise LA, of course. Their parties are hilarious, as is the depiction of Cressida’s eccentric family. Although after a while the people in the town started to run together – Dee Dee, Donna – were they the same lady? Candy?

The twist ending is very believable, just because it happens all the time.

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