Antonya Nelson’s new novel opens dramatically with a fatal one-car accident. It’s caused by common carelessness — the driver Misty Mueller reaches into the back seat to unlatch her dog’s kennel door. She’s keeping the steering wheel steady with her knees, and the car veers off the Colorado road and plunges down a cliff.
Nelson’s storytelling doesn’t sensationalize the car crash, rather presents it with intelligent, unadorned and meaningful words. Her sentences are the kind you want to savor for their rhythms and insights.
Misty’s death orphans her teen-aged daughter, who’s attending boarding school in Vermont. School officials deliver the bad news to the moody and unpredictable Cattie Mueller, and she reacts by running away. Meanwhile, a letter arrives for Catherine Desplaines in Wichita, Kansas, informing her she’s the guardian of Cattie. The notice is a complete surprise, considering Catherine and Misty, once childhood best friends, haven’t communicated for 23 years.
This guardianship isn’t legally binding, yet Catherine considers it while her somewhat indifferent husband of 18 years encourages her to gather all the facts.
Oliver, the husband, is one of Nelson’s best character creations. He’s a successful, approaching-70 entrepreneur who’s trying to stay forever young. Catherine is his third wife, closer in age to Oliver’s estranged daughters than to him, and she’s now — like his previous wives – a victim of Oliver’s addiction to giddy new love. He’s cheating on Catherine with an even younger sweetheart.
This is the stuff of great fictional domestic life in the right hands, and Nelson’s definitely dead on. She magnificently weaves in and out of Catherine’s past with Misty and her present with Oliver and then ends with a reaching out to Cattie. Along the way, Nelson explores the things that bind us to one another and our pasts with astute observations and emotional honesty.
One caveat about this story: Much of it takes place in Wichita during the reappearance of the BTK serial killer, a man who terrorized the city for years. This backdrop creates a creepy connection to the theme of the things that bind us, as in “bind, torture, kill”. Also, Catherine drives around town to look at the victims’ houses. It sounds off-putting but in Nelson’s hands, it’s surprisingly normal – a sort of grappling with the unconscionable – and so Catherine’s curiosity lends even more realism to this richly created and very rewarding story.