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Book Review: Prosperous Friends

9780802120380Prosperous Friends
By Christine Schutt
Grove Press, 2012

What the fiction writer can do with words is a kind of delimiting and impossible question. Words tell stories but they also make impressions, dancing on our minds with their alacrity or ellipsis or some combination of the two. Good story or good words? The debate will rage on. Christine Schutt traffics in the kingdom of words and sentences, yet, like Ingmar Bergman, she has a narrative territory all her own: craggy relationships, the travails of girls growing into women, astonishing sexuality, and the general violence of our emotions and compulsions. These are the stories most common to fiction, to cinema, to life. In Prosperous Friends, Schutt examines these benchmarks while again displaying her incomparable passion for the sentence.

The “prosperous friends” of the title refers to the supporting couple in the book, not the main pair. The novel focuses on thirty-somethings Isabel and Ned Bourne, who are not so established though they do have means. Both are writers—some talent is apparent but not fully realized and about midway through, an elder set of successful doppelgangers, painter Clive Harris and his poet wife Dinah, are introduced. Early on, the young couple’s marriage is well into trouble as they soon get mixed up with a rich, drunken Brit named Fife who throws himself at Isabel when they temporarily live in London. Before the reader even knows her name, Isabel is established by her emotion: “Her swept, stripped crying was like an empty room, the boxy shadows on the walls, the unfaded parts against which bed and desks had pressed.” Her despair has a complement in the architecture and the strong s’s at the beginning of the sentence along with the “bed,” “desks,” and “pressed” rhyming at the end, reinforce the image of someone emotionally abandoned but carrying the fingerprints of her once beloved. Living in a loft in New York they are able to write more but soon enough they meet Clive and Dinah who push them in directions they were perhaps fated to endure. Clive is a temperamental soul driven by the flesh and he invites Isabel (who invites Ned) to a country house near his own in Maine to live and write, as well as to pose for him in his studio.

What Ned and Isabel are trying to learn is cohabitation, but their histories won’t let them make peace—this is perhaps why the narrator’s pronouncement about halfway through the book is so central: “Once your parents die, there is nothing between you and it.” “It” can be many things but it feels more like the purpose of life. Their parents aren’t gone yet, but they are in absentia and so, not surprisingly, Isabel starts to cleave to Dinah, a mother figure, as well as with Sally, Clive’s troubled daughter who is nearly Isabel’s age. It is finally Isabel’s book as Ned gets more ground into himself. Though Isabel has her own problems and moods, she is able to find her way through them because she is interested in other people. These women may not be able to cure one another, but they are the necessary mirror that the two men in the novel, Ned and Clive, think of as little more than distractions to relieve their addiction or desperation.

If any sentence will serve to typify the way Schutt pans for both life’s beauties and declivities in the pools of worded behavior, it’s this: “She looked just as she had hoped to look when being nasty to Ned, lovely, at ease.” The game of life is never so stark as when it is reduced to these brief, poetic passages. If love is to be overcome it must be destroyed and reassembled—like the play of contradiction in words that lope from pleasure into pain and back again.

Prosperous Friends finds the sexes in the same battles since Antony chided his adored Egyptian in Antony and Cleopatra, “There’s beggary in love that can be reckon’d.” As in Shakespeare, Schutt’s language dissolves the emotions of the book into a lyricism that stands beautiful and unencumbered over the morass that made them.

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Greg Gerke‘s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, Quarterly West, and others.

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