The plot of Christina Baker Kline’s latest novel sounds simple — almost too simple, in a trite, soap-opera way. Charlie is in love with Claire, who is best friends with his wife Alison. Claire, in turn, is married to Ben. The four New Yorkers have been friends for years, but all that is about to change. (Dun-dun-dun.)
But something surprising happened within the first few chapters: I got hooked. This book, of which I had such low expectations, ended up being incredibly hard to put down. It became one of those books where you stay up way past your bedtime because you have to read just one more chapter. Then another and another.
This is due to Kline’s knack for character development, for raising questions within each chapter which are then answered, or at least addressed, in the next. Each chapter is from a different character’s perspective, and just when you think you’ve chosen your side, the other character comes along with their own set of issues, their own explanation of what’s going on in this little nucleus.
Alison, the soft-spoken, devoted mother and wife, is the perfect empathy-inspiring victim. When she’s in a car accident that kills a young boy, she reaches for her husband, Charlie, who’s already exhibiting the distance and impatience of a man knee-deep in an affair. Bad Charlie. But Charlie and Claire, Alison’s best friend, have a past and a bond that may extend beyond his poor wife, we learn as the book goes on. And Claire’s relationship with her husband Ben, though comfortable, has its probems as well.
While switching between perspectives, the story also goes back in time slowly, all the way to the very first moment that this four-prong relationship began, adding further depth to the drama at hand. While both guilty parties have loving, devoted spouses at home, Kline somehow inspires sympathy rather than hatred.
The ending is inevitable, and completely predictable from reading the book jacket alone. But this book isn’t so much about what’s happening as why and how it’s happening. I got so caught up in the characters that I really did want to understand the intricacies of their relationships. Though at first it seemed like this novel was shallow and indulgent, it turned out to be a very real exploration of love and marriage, in public and in private, between partners and within the self.