Engrossing (4 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published in 2009 by Harper Collins
Paperback edition- 766 pages
I’m a big fan of Paullina Simon’s epic Bronze Horseman trilogy, set during and after the siege of Leningrad. I also loved The Girl in Times Square which I read towards the end of last year. This novel is told in a very different way to that of the Bronze Horseman with a contemporary, topical plot- yet like Simon’s other writing, I still couldn’t put it down.
It’s hard to discuss this book in too much depth without giving away its ending, though suffice to say it is about a seemingly happily married woman’s chance encounter with a stranger and the impossible, unthinkable choices that this eventually forces her to make. Simons has been brave in creating such a female protagonist- Larissa Stark- who virtually no one will be able to identify with, a selfish woman who is only interested in following her own banal desires, no matter the consequences; I genuinely hated Larissa, which is why she was all the more fascinating to read about! From time to time I found myself questioning whether she actually had psychopathic tendencies as it is incredibly rare to come across such a character in contemporary fiction with seemingly no moral compass or empathy.
From the outside looking in, Larissa Stark’s life seems idyllic. Living in the New Jersey suburbs with her wealthy husband, Larissa’s days seem to revolve around the activities of her three children, lunches with her friends and working in a local theatre group. Larissa never has to ask for anything- money, fancy clothes or jewellery, it is all provided to her, which makes her actions when she meets Kai Passani all the more incredible. Embarking on a fling, will Larissa really risk losing everything for this young, handsome stranger?
As I said, this book is incredibly well-written, whether or not you agree with the actions of the characters or not, it certainly has the capability to keep the reader engrossed. Larissa continually questions her own identity and whether or not she has lost herself and is purely defined as a wife and mother, which is perhaps something that other women can identify with. What they won’t be able to identify with though, is her eventual choices, which I had to admit left me feeling shocked and wincing a bit. I started out perhaps feeling a bit sorry for Larissa and once the book delves into the depths of her deception and manipulation, like those around her, questioned whether all along she had been putting on an act. It becomes sordid and sleazy and you wonder how Larissa can behave in the way she does.
The novel looks long and hard into the tricky minefields of marriage and relationships- those of a husband and wife and of a mother and her children. Initially I didn’t have a great deal of sympathy for Jared, Larissa’s husband; he did seem to take her for granted and he didn’t appear to know his children especially well either. Once events are set in motion however, he too undergoes a tremendously difficult journey and as a reader you get to see the impact that Larissa’s questionable choices have on everyone around her and none more so than him and his children.
Larissa’s friends are also left questioning whether they ever knew her at all following the illicit events; her whole life is analysed by the people who believed they knew her best. This in turn poses the question: how well can you ever really know someone? Can such uncharacteristic, unforgivable actions ever be justified? Can forgiveness and redemption be sought after something monumental happens and destroys the fabric of everything you ever knew? Ethical questions like these are readily examined in the plot.
The story moves between varying settings- from the New Jersey suburbs to the slums of the Philippines and on to the Australian Outback- a place I’ve never been but could envisage clearly through Simons’ atmospheric prose. You can practically feel its scorching sun seeping through the pages.
Admittedly, there were a few facets in the storyline I didn’t like; a lot of focus was given to religion and Larissa seeking redemption from God, for example, towards the end of the plot. This always irks me, as an atheist. Also, Ezra, one of Jared and Larissa’s friends was just plain annoying with all of his pretentious psycho-babble which made me want to skip over the chapters with him in- I didn’t like him very much. It might just be me, but a lot of what he was talking about didn’t seem to actually make sense.
A thing that disappointed me most however, was that I would have preferred to have seen more of the impact that Larissa’s actions had on her children. The emotions in what their mother had done weren’t particularly elaborated upon, which to me seemed like something of a missed opportunity. Lastly, whilst I realise that Jared and Larissa were wealthy too, I found it hard to believe that Larissa would go shopping as much as she did and basically spend her days frittering away Jared’s money- it just didn’t feel particularly believable. Oh, how the other half live!
This melancholy story of love, family and desire lingered in my mind though, long after I finished turning its pages and will be welcomed by fans of Diane Chamberlain or Jodi Picoult. Because of its thought-provoking themes (though perhaps not for its length!), I also think it would make an excellent book group choice.
Other books I’ve read by Paullina Simons: