A young woman recently broken up with prints out every last piece of correspondence between her ex and herself, compiles it, places it in an envelope, and mails it to the wife of her former lover. Said young woman then disappears from the story completely and is never heard from again. Unfortunately the wife is not the one who opens the envelope, instead the man’s young daughter is the one who first discovers the very adult contents of the correspondence, she in turn shows it to her older brother, who alarmingly places it in the hands of its intended target: his mother. The secret is thus out for all to see. This is how this novel opens.
Julia Pierpont enters the literary scene with a debut novel that addresses the implosion of the family, a family made up of a man, his wife, and their two children, one of each gender. Every brief chapter switches the focus between one of the four people that make up the family unit: the philandering Jack, the former ballerina Deb, teenage Simon, and the young and innocent Kay. Readers looking for an energetic and eventful novel should look elsewhere, because not much plot is provided. Instead, Pierpont is more concerned with tracing the psychological and sentimental fallout that the reveal of a husband’s infidelity wreaks on each member of a family and exactly how the family unit is eroded at until it is ultimately destroyed. If only her characters were more compelling. Unfortunately Pierpont’s characters are too archetypal to be interesting and thus result very unoriginal. Kay is a middle-schooler who at times behaves like a toddler, Simon seems to be the author’s fantasy of an adolescent boy and paints his world in a way only someone who has never entered that world could. The parents are worse, and painfully self-unaware: Jack has no idea why he strays and cannot comprehend why his family has such a hard time dealing with his sin, Deb is the classic domestic saint who abandoned her passion for the sake of starting a family. Groan-worthy dialogue and scenarios make up a large portion of this novel.
Around halfway through the book something interesting, albeit unoriginal, occurs. Almost as if taken directly out of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a short intermission of a chapter begins to play with time and narrative structure. A series of flashes take us through the years and fill in important landmarks in the family’s life and history. We are provided with fleeting snapshots of lived lives and are dizzyingly catapulted years forward. After this shift one would expect the second half of the story to pick up in the far future, but that assumption proves incorrect. Instead the story continues as if the intermission never occurred. There is just more of the same, and the story suffers greatly because any possible inertia is killed due to the reader already knowing what will become of the characters, as well as due to the fact that nothing of substance is revealed in the second half of this overly long book.
Inevitably some elite creative writing MFAs will love the book because it celebrates one of their own, for Pierpont is the shining example of an academic writing about privileged and rich white people with problems, and she does write quite nicely. The illusion, though, is that it’s all style and absolutely no substance. She has potential as a writer, but this should have been a writing exercise that did not deserve publication – she has yet to find her voice or a reason to write, and to reward a very disingenuous first book with this much fanfare and acclaim is bound to be more detrimental to her creativity. But hey, that’s just my two cents.