Love is brutalized throughout Gina Frangello's second novel, "A Life in Men." The pursuit of it, the act, the possibility. Love is what two young American women think they want, are perhaps even owed, but violence — premeditated, haphazard, self-inflicted — intervenes.
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One young woman, Nicole (or Nix), will vanish. The other, her best friend, Mary, will live her life trying to collect every experience and many a man before the clock ticks out on her. In Mary's case, the clock is ticking fast: She has cystic fibrosis. Her skin tastes like salt. Her lungs fill with mucous. She survives with the help of all manner of medical paraphernalia. Sometimes it seems that she will not survive at all.
Common wisdom says that Mary should live at home, in Ohio, with her loving adoptive parents and near the doctor who knows how to manage her case. But three years after the treacherous vacation the girls shared in Greece, Mary heads off to London, where Nix was last known to live. She wants to know what became of her best friend. She wants to understand what happened in Mykonos, what terrible secrets Nix never shared.
She wants to live like Nix might have lived, and so she masquerades as (and slowly becomes) a wild woman living among wild men — a heroin addict, for one; a thief, for another; a former gymnast who performs on the street, for a third. Mary calls herself Nicole. She seeks sex — not romance, not seduction. She neglects her health. She takes what she can. She nearly bleeds out on an underground train. She barks at the man who tries to help to leave her be.
It's not pretty, but it's the life Mary wants, or a version of the thing that this slight blond with cascading curls keeps chasing — to Japan, to Africa, to Mexico, to the Canary Islands, to Amsterdam, to Morocco. Even proposed to by a kindhearted safari leader, Mary bolts. Even married to a nearly perfect man, a doctor who can take care of her lungs and her heart, Mary seeks out other men. How do you cram it all in? What would you want to cram in? How do you live a whole life in a curtailed time frame?
And who will blame you if you live selfishly, greedily, untrustworthily? Who will love you nonetheless? Who will understand how you — this you — wants, most of all, to be a mother?
Frangello writes with epic ferocity. She inhabits many countries brilliantly, many characters seamlessly, and a carousel of points of view. The scenes are often crass, harsh. The primary characters do not beg for our devotion. There are no soft transitions, no lyrical reposes. These are lives cranked to full volume, and readers must beware, for they will be accosted, as Mary is accosted, by every experienced thing:
At times on safari, the air seems like something you could touch: so thick with animal urine or decomposing flesh that it's hard to believe such a scent carries no shape, no color to mark its presence.
It takes courage to write a book like this. It takes an abundance of very specific knowledge about an entire world of things: suburban Ohio in the 1980s, the landscape of Mykonos, the intricacies of petty crimes, the flight of a first heroin high, the way a lion devours its prey, the social politics of San Miguel de Allende, the litter left in the wake of a terrorist plot, the machinery of an ill-equipped hospital, the language of cystic fibrosis. It takes a very sure hand, as Frangello systematically reintroduces characters we thought we'd left behind and raises them up, believably, as more ruined, more aching, less sure with the passing of time.
But ultimately, in the midst of all the buzz and fever, it's Mary that Frangello keeps us focused on — the life she chooses, the decisions she makes, the people she hurts, and the men who need and desire her, regardless. Here is Mary assessing Mary, toward the end of her globe-trotting adventures. This is the character for whom Frangello has melded an arsenal of details and a compulsive plot:
I'm like that Hemingway story where all I ever do is look at new things and try new drinks. … I've never contributed anything anywhere I've gone. I taught English for about five minutes in Osaka. I should have done something, joined the Peace Corps, built a f—ing house or gone to an ashram or volunteered at a refugee camp. I haven't made any impact. I drink mint tea and buy carpets.
Is Mary underestimating herself? Is she, at last, telling the truth? Frangello keeps us reading forward, hurting and reeling and never precisely sure.
Beth Kephart's 17th book, "Nest. Flight. Sky: On Love and Loss, One Wing at a Time, was just released from Shebooks. She blogs daily at beth-kephart.blogspot.com.
"A Life in Men"
By Gina Frangello, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 402 pages, $14.95