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Book Review: The Unfortunates

By (June 7, 2015) No Comment

The Unfortunatesthe unfortunates cover

by Sophie McManus

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

Considering the heated book-chat debates that spark up from time to time in the more vapid magazines about the empathy of contemporary fiction, the likability of its characters, there’s a great deal in Sophie McManus’ debut novel The Unfortunates that its less seasoned or more irritable readers will find confusing. It’s the story of some very wealthy people doing vapid, aggressive things – to each other and everybody else – and either successfully hiding those thing or else getting sloppy and unsatisfying comeuppances. Only one character ever becomes likable, and she sort of backs into it accidentally, around page 300. And they’re all so monstrous to the hired help that you keep expecting Clarence Darrow to show up and slap indictments on the lot of them. The plot might mostly unfold in the picturesque fictional seaside town of Stockport and there might be an abundance of boat and beach scenes, but this is no more a “summer book” than the latest Dalton Fury is a tittering comedy of manners.

Our main trio consists of Cecelia “CeCe” Somner, a wealthy society widow and Stockport matriarch, now 75 and afflicted with a rare disease that’s withering her body away while leaving her mind clear and sharp, her son George, a shallow, self-pitying middle-aged preppy, and his wife Iris, a hustling, manipulative real estate broker George met as a coat-check girl. McManus makes occasional attempts to portray Iris as something approaching ‘salt of the earth’ (one gets the strong impression that the only ‘salt of the earth’ McManus herself has ever experienced was imported from the Costa Brava), but for CeCe and George, she breaks out the finest Auchincloss china. About George we’re told:

Something about his easy manner and the mean, charming way his eyes – green like his mother’s, for there was no mistaking them for anything but mother and son – narrowed to some little eternity in the manner of a cologne advertisement, made those in his presence feel they were their most interesting selves.

(“Once more he’s overcome with the child’s dream of witnessing them mourn at his funeral,” it’s revealed, “and he knows, though he can’t say it to himself so directly, that for a man of middle age some other dream should long have displace this one”)

And about CeCe, who dominates the novel as thoroughly as she dominates the people around her, we get an ample wealth of details, each less flattering than the one before. “She’d never been beautiful,” we’re told, “But she was remarkable, and glad not to be counted in the limp category of pretty.” She confesses her irritation that “her shopper at Bergdorf” has been urging her toward “items of themed exuberance,” and when the novel opens, she’s angered by the noisy hoi-poloi who increasingly infest Stockport in the summer:

So many parties and all the same. And boat people, not her kind. “Not my kind,” she always said. Noisy. Tourists and fishermen and her arrogant new neighbors with their captain’s hats and their glowing tablets and their children screaming down to the dock to man the jib. For many summers, she’d complained about these children. The penetrating problem of noise pollution – how their high coral voices skipped along the water and pierced the glass of her front windows – did they not have mothers who taught them manners?

Even when her illness prompts George to move her into a posh hospice, the narrative sizzles with her inner vinegar:

“This should be a fork,” she says, and sets the spoon down. She’d awoken inside the well of a wild thrash, soaked in sweat. The nurse prattles away, ticking along the wide, dusty road of their daily schedule: what time the doctor will stop in, when the physical therapist arrives, when the afternoon nurse takes over the hall, what’s good for television. She recommends a reality show about a rodeo, ranch hands competing for prizes under the high sky. Birdpoison, brainrot. Limited, doltish girl. CeCe nods and smiles.

When CeCe’s iron control of the family falters, George and Iris embark on various financial gambles that inevitably explode in their faces, endangering both their social standing and their marriage, and McManus takes her readers through all of it with such narrative gusto (and a great many very pretty turns of phrase) that you’d think this were her twentieth novel instead of her first. She never quite sympathizes with George or CeCe, but she never quite condemns them either; she seems content to lay out their inner and outer lives – with exquisite, fine-tuned detail – and then let her readers decide what to make of these people. It’s a thoroughly impressive performance, but it’ll be a jarring decompression for adults who do most of their book-shopping in the YA section these days.