Friday, May 6, 2011

Man and Wife Is Tense, Entertaining, Flawed

Once I read a wonderful little synopsis of the dramatic differences between Shakespeare and Chekhov. Although I can't lay my hands on the exact source, it essentially said that when the Bard's characters reach the end of the proverbial rope, they intone something like, "To be or not to be," while in the same situation Chekhov's creations murmur, "My, I think it's time for tea." That strikes me as a perfect continuum on which to situate a narrative's action: Where does a particular story fall between big and bombastic on one end (Shakespeare) and soft and subdued on the other (Chekhov)? Well, if we're talking about Andrew Klavan's thriller Man and Wife, it's Shakespearean through and through, stuffed full of enough dramatic tension for any number of alienated royals.

Cal Bradley had a good life. A thriving psychiatric practice in tiny Highbury, Connecticut. Three adorable children. A wife with whom he shares a passionate love even after 15 years of marriage. Things seemingly couldn't have been better -- until that fateful night when Peter Blue snapped. Seemingly out of nowhere, the nineteen-year-old beat his girlfriend, stole a pistol and set fire to Trinity Episcopal Church. If he'd died there, things might have been simpler, but Orrin Hunnicut, the Highbury chief of police, hauled the kid from the flaming wreckage in an almost holy wrath. Hunnicut wanted to send Peter up the river, but after Peter tried to hang himself in the holding cell, a number of Highbury's elites convinced a judge to put the boy under Cal's care for psychiatric evaluation. But as Cal begins to untangle his charge's psyche, his own family begins to fall under scrutiny. And then while hiking through the woods one day, his spies his wife deep in conversation with another man ...

Man and Wife isn't a book you'll read for subtlety. It has nothing secreted away in some literary corner. With the exception of Cal, every character is broad as a battleship and given to launching into over-the-top antics with precious little provocation. The novel's themes are self-evident from the get-go, and the ending is foreshadowed multiple times with more forthrightness than art. And yet I still found it entertaining, primarily because Klavan knows how to plot. From the first chapter on, we understand that Cal and most everyone around him will do some Very Bad Things. However, the exact path of his downfall remains in doubt up until the very end, an end which recalls A Simple Plan and A History of Violence. An entertaining, flawed entry in Klavan's canon.

(Picture: CC 2009 by Nahh)


pattinase (abbott) said...

I will have to look for this one.

Loren Eaton said...

Patti, it's far less character driven than what you normally read. Honestly, it's almost a beach book.