Some memoirs are so skillfully wrought that they read like novels. This debut novel by Jessica Lott is so vividly infused with life that it reads like a memoir.
Without knowing the details of Lott's background, it is impossible to assess how much of "The Rest of Us" is autobiographical. But both its central love story and its account of an artistic coming of age glow with verisimilitude, and the mostly plain-spoken prose attains lyrical peaks just when it needs to.
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At 19, Terry, the narrator and protagonist, had a tortured affair with Rudolf N. Rhinehart, a distinguished poetry professor at her unnamed upstate New York college. "Inside we had always been the same age," she insists, but that seems questionable at best. Passionate but marked by misunderstandings and jealousy, the romance ended badly and without much closure.
Worse, the affair seems to have derailed both Terry's personal life and artistic ambition. When we meet her, 15 years later, she is working for a commercial portrait photographer rather than pursuing her art. In her mid-30s, she is still single and living in a cramped, desolate, rent-stabilized Manhattan walk-up. (Move to Brooklyn, we want to tell her — advice she eventually will take.)
The novel actually begins with Rhinehart's New York Times obituary, identifying him as "a noted cultural critic, literary scholar and poet" who won both a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for a book titled "Midnight, Spring" before he stopped writing poetry. But the online publication of the obituary turns out to be a ghastly mistake: The man isn't dead, except perhaps in a symbolic or artistic sense. Terry discovers that happy news shortly afterward when, by some weird karmic twist, she runs into her old lover (in both senses — he is now 56) at Bloomingdale's. He is married to Laura, an art collector with a magnetic style and sophisticated taste. But that doesn't stop Rhinehart from inviting Terry, whom he calls "Tatie," to an exceedingly awkward dinner party.
Conveniently enough, his marriage soon crumbles, affording Terry and Rhinehart (he is never called Rudolf) a second chance at love. But there are obstacles: Rhinehart vacations in Italy and then, after a brief return, embarks on a long trip to Ukraine, where he is determined to ferret out family connections and the secrets contained in his mother's old letters.
Terry waits, she wonders, she remembers their old relationship. Lott's description of her anxiety when she imagines that he must finally be back from Italy is dead-on:
(A) familiar feeling had begun to creep up on me. Impatience. At first an exhilarated impatience, like anticipation, and then, the more I obsessively checked my silent phone — irritation, depression. This was ridiculous, I thought. I wasn't in my twenties anymore. If I wanted to speak to him, I should call his cell. So I did…. I attempted to sound cheery, casual and upbeat.
When she doesn't immediately hear back from him, she despairs: "That refracted image of myself that I'd been holding on to — that confident, creative sweet young woman — evaporated. Why the hell had he come back into my life? Just to reject me again? ... I had an inextinguishable loyalty, like a dog had."
The seduction of replay romances is the opportunity they offer not only to revisit, but to revise the past. But past and present, hope and disappointment, can fuse in charged and complicated ways. Lott conveys this with a graceful simplicity reminiscent of the work of Ha Jin, her professor at Boston University. At one point, sitting with Rhinehart, Terry "had a weird sensation of time suspended before us, stretching out in all directions, like a flat, dark sea, and this couch a little rowboat that we were snugly on, drifting."
Meanwhile, just seeing Rhinehart again has sparked Terry's creativity. She traverses New York, photographing couples. "I was most interested," she says, "in capturing the relationships between people, the often split-second eye contact that held implicit agreements, impressions, fears or desires."
When Laura, with her prodigious art-world connections, reaches out to her, Terry furtively, self-interestedly embraces the new friendship. Involved once again with Rhinehart, she keeps him in the dark about her connection to Laura, and conceals from Laura the affair with her ex-husband. Smart woman, foolish choices, the reader thinks, wondering how and when Terry will receive her comeuppance.
Mirroring the Terry-Rhinehart romance is the marriage between Terry's best friend, Hallie, and her Spanish husband, Adán, which is torn apart by Hallie's rampaging jealousy. There's a wonderful tragicomic set piece — a disastrous dinner party at which Hallie demands that every guest wear white and then puts black motor oil underneath the table to stain anyone enjoying an illicit caress.
"The Rest of Us" is deliberately meandering. Its narrative wanders back and forth in time, exploring the alternating pulls of love, friendship, family and artistic creation. There are many byways, none of them dull. From the start, it's evident that Lott has a mordantly acute comic sensibility. It turns out that she can also write with tenderness and restraint about life's inevitable tragic turns.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.
"The Rest of Us"
By Jessica Lott, Simon & Schuster, 304pages, $24.99Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun