I will confess right off the bat that I was determined to love this book, having just finished and loved his son’s novel House of Sand and Fog and his son’s memoir Townie. And you’ll probably have already guessed that I didn’t like it at all.
Yes, it’s true that Dubus the father has a proven mastery over simple heartfelt writing that takes you into his characters’ heads, and yes it’s true that he is fascinated by the “mystery” of what makes relationships work—or not work—and brilliantly shares that fascination with his reader. But, while I haven’t read any of his other writing, I would dare to suggest that they reflect the same serious flaw that this book suffered—his characters are self-centered, self-indulgent, manipulative human beings, neither evil nor good, just selfish and downright unlikeable.
Here we have two couples, friends for years, whose marriages are deteriorating because they can’t be bothered to fix them. They are all seriously-flawed individuals, filled with petty jealousies and resentments. There is partner-swamping and rampant infidelity, and where there isn’t, it’s only because a character is either too bored or too self-absorbed to overly care. One of the couples has a child who barely figures in the novel at all!
I found many reviews of this book on the internet, each one more ecstatic than the next over Dubus’ supposed insights into women, his exquisite sensibilities, his gorgeous prose. I had to go back and re-read parts of the book to make sure I hadn’t missed something. But all I found were four individuals who measured their “maturity” by their willingness to “release” (read, abandon) their partners when the going got rough. Not surprisingly, the author lived the same self-absorbed and narcissistic life, abandoning his children to poverty and a sense of unworthiness, while seeking ever-younger wives and girlfriends and indulging himself in the name of artistic license.
I don’t think that the author showed courage in “how willing he is to hold the fiction writer’s magnifying glass to his own soul,” as Dubus’ son generously writes in his introduction to this book. Rather, I think he was simply sharing his own depressingly infantile view of “the mystery of love” through the voices of his mostly unloveable characters. And that is depressing, indeed.