Book Review: The Ex
by Alafair Burke
Since air travel now involves wholesale surrendering your legal rights, voluntarily submitting to public groping, and paying exorbitant add-on fees for basic amenities, it’s tricky to know what constitutes an “airport book” in the 21st century. In the 20th century, the term was both an insult and a compliment – the insult being the implication of shallow triviality, a book that’s only fit for an airport, the kind of thing you’d only read to pass the time while traveling, and the compliment being the unspoken acknowledgement that it takes a certain kind of skill to distract somebody from the fact that they’re stuffing themselves into a fuel-laden aluminum tube that’s going to be flown by computer at 550 miles an hour up at the very edge of the atmosphere. The book in question can’t only be mindless – there’s an in-flight magazine for that, or else simply staring out the window at the inconceivable distance you’ll fall if the slightest thing goes wrong. But at the same time, the book in question can’t exactly be Turgenev; you paid $5 for a paperback you fully intend to leave in your seat pouch if by some miracle your plane lands safely at its destination.
A successful “airport book,” in other words, must be both ephemeral and gripping. It must fully engage without seeking to detain. It’s not an affair – it’s a tryst.
If there is such a thing as an “airport book” in the 21st century, Alafair Burke’s The Ex must surely qualify as a prime example of the best of the breed (even the $30 price tag speaks to the depravity of the modern age). It’s smart but not intelligent, engaging but not literary, and tremendously readable without being the least tiny bit plausible. You won’t be able to stop turning the pages while you’re reading it, and you won’t be able to recall a single thing about it when you get off the plane at LAX.
There’s a man named Jack, see, and a few years ago his beloved wife was among the victims of a teenage mass murder who took his own life at the scene. Grieving, Jack gets on with his life – he has a teenager of his own to raise, after all, a daughter. One morning he’s out jogging when he sees an alluring woman reading a book. He uses the online agony column “The Room” (“Can’t call yourself a New Yorker and not know about the Room”) to find her, learns her name is Madeline (always a troubling sign), and arranges to go on a picnic with her. When the day comes, there’s no Madeline – but there is a mass shooting, and one of the victims is the father of the boy who killed Jack’s wife. The police arrest Jack, and in a panic, his teenage daughter calls crackerjack criminal defense lawyer Olivia Randall, who years before broke Jack’s heart. By obscure teenager logic, Jack’s daughter figures that means she now owes him one.
Olivia gets her first phone call about the case while she’s in bed with another woman’s husband, and she’s not exactly thrilled to hear Jack’s name (as she quaintly puts it, “the name hit me in the gut so hard that I tasted last night’s grappa at the back of my throat”). But she’s not quite brave enough to defy teenager logic (who is?), so she agrees to head on down to the First Precinct to talk to her Ex. Burke’s description of the first moment of her arrival there will tell you pretty much all you need to know, not only about Olivia Randall but about every novel Alafair Burke is ever likely to write:
As I approached the front desk at the First Precinct, a uniform nudged his buddy, followed by a quick whisper. Maybe they recognized me, either as a relatively successful defense attorney or perhaps from precinct gossip. (Though I was by no means what the cops would call a “Badge Bunny,” you can’t spend ten years on the criminal court scene as a single woman without a thing or two happening.)
Or, more likely, I had the look of someone who didn’t belong in a police station. To any half-decent police officer, it would be apparent from my tailored suit and expensive shoes that I was either a prosecutor or defense lawyer or a reporter or a high-maintenance victim: trouble whatever the story.
The narrative just keeps purring along with such smooth confidence that even if you’re tempted to pick apart its thousand burrs of illogic (not just the slur on all single women working in the criminal justice system, for example, but also the fact that the people who “didn’t belong in a police station” – prosecutors, defense lawyers, reporters, plaintiffs – are pretty much the only people you expect to see in a police station other than actual cops and robbers), they’ll be ten pages behind you before you get down to it. This is exactly the way in which “airport books” most resemble airplanes themselves: they hurtle relentlessly forward, through the thinnest of atmospheres, with nobody at the controls.
Burke spares her readers the anxiety of rooting for the doomed hero by making every single character – Olivia, Jack, the cops, the prosecution, Madeline, the dead wife, the dead teenage killer, the dead teenage killer’s father, just everybody, a locked-down unregenerate tar-filthy rat-bag (I swear at one point Olivia stops at a sidewalk hotdog stand and asks for a dog with everything and the vendor says, “Get it yourself, asshole”). Since no demands are therefore put on the reader’s sympathy, no calls are therefore made for the reader’s loyalty. It’s a slick hour’s pure voyeuristic enjoyment, and then your tray table gets stored in its upright and locked position.
But you weren’t worrying during that hour, nor were you staring out the window. You maybe even ignored your cellphone. The lady is that good.