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by Kate Christensen (Doubleday, 2009)

On the third page of Kate Christensen's Trouble, Josie Dorvillier catches herself in the mirror and realizes that her marriage is over. Josie has been flirting with an attractive bad guy at her best friend's Christmas party when this epiphany bursts upon her, and the shock starts the book off in an interrogatory mood. What kind of marriage falls apart under such quiet circumstances? Is Josie stable? Reliable? When we're reading a novel as good as the one that Trouble turns out to be, we always want to know what's going to happen. But it is unusual to begin asking on the third page.

At the very outset, then, Ms Christensen gives the central pillar of romantic fiction a good kick. Josie has been married for fifteen years, and she is the adoptive mother of an eleven year-old Chinese orphan. There is no "other man," or in fact any romantic interest anywhere. That, of course, is the problem that the great romantic novelists not only refused to address but positively foreclosed, with their artful "happy ever after" endings. Josie is not supposed to want for romantic interest; if she does, it's because — horrors! — she married unwisely. But how unwise can a marriage be, if it has plodded along for fifteen years? And how can Josie make an intelligent decision about her marriage after a few drinks and some imprudent badinage?

What happens next, right after the party, I could not repeat in a family newspaper. I'm not going to repeat it here, either, but let's just say that it wouldn't help Josie keep custody of her daughter.

What's that? Josie doesn't really want custody of her daughter? What sort of trashy woman has Kate Christensen decided to write about?

A vital and attractive woman, that's what kind. A woman who has awakened to the incompatibility of her husband as suddenly as anybody wakes up to anything. And her first determination is to stay awake: that is why she wants to move out, into a flat of her own. She wants to see what still works. Kate Christensen's great achievement is to make a woman like Josie sympathetic. How she achieves this is well worth considering.

First, of course, there is Josie's voice, which is both thoughtful and good-humored.

The streets of Chelsea were filled with twinkling Christmas lights, grimy ice and snow, merchandise aggressively displayed in windows with boughs of holly and pine wreaths, decorated, lit-up trees. The Christian Advent was a dark, difficult time of year, a season of soul-searching, stress, and loneliness, short days, long nights, obligations, insomnia, family tensions, financial worries, longings and regrets, the ghosts of old fears and sorrows. I looked into the faces of the people I passed and felt compassion for all of them, no matter who they were — that fat old guy with bushy eyebrows who was wearing a quilted olive green jacket, those two young Latinas in tight jeans and down coats with fake fur trimming on the hoods, that mother with baby twins, pushing a double stroller and talking emphatically on her cell phone. All of them were struggling to get through their days as well as they could. All of them were faced with things they didn't want to deal with, people who didn't treat them kindly enough. I smiled warmly at anyone who met my eyes and silently wished the rest of them a merry Christmas even if they celebrated something else. "Merry Christmas" was, to me, a coded catchall phrase that meant, "I hope you get through this mess with as little pain as possible." The rest of the year, Jesus was a grown-up with a beard, but in this season, he was a needy, tender little baby just like the rest of us. To me, saying "Merry Christmas" just acknowledged this general vulnerable-newborn status. It struck me as nothing but good manners and common sense.

After a brisk seasonal description that anchors what follows in a sense of the ultra-familiar, this paragraph launches an equally communal view of the complexities behind the décor — problems shared, sooner or later, by almost everyone in the modern world. It ends with Josie modestly tooting her own horn (and Ms Christensen shows that such a thing is possible) with a thumbnail description of her warm, sociable, but not sentimental holiday outlook

Ms Christensen takes pains to establish Josie as a woman with a serious problem to deal with, and not as someone who expects other people to clean up after her. Although she is quite sure that she must leave Anthony, she gives him a last chance at the dinner table. Sure, she expects him to turn it down, but she extends the offer sincerely, almost hopefully. Anthony's smug assurance that Josie will end by coming back to him, moreover, strengthens Josie's case with the reader. Anthony is not a bad man — we are never encouraged to dislike him — but Josie is right: the two of them have fallen asleep together, and run the risk of dying without ever waking up. 

Instead of moving into her own flat, though, Josie flies off to Mexico City, and the core of the novel takes place there. Lest this sound terminally self-absorbed and irresponsible (not to mention at odds with Josie's holiday spirit), the trip is occasioned by a crisis in the life of one of her oldest and dearest friends. Raquel Dominguez, a college chum who went on to be something of a star in pop music, has hit a bad patch. On the eve of releasing a comeback album, Raquel has indulged in a fling with a much younger TV star, a boy whose other girlfriend is pregnant. The gossip mags have been merciless, and Raquel has taken flight south of the border. The awful truth is that she is still in love with the kid. She needs a friend! As it happens to be Josie's annual vacation time — Josie is a psychotherapist who unconventionally takes two weeks off every Christmas/New Year, — she is free to go. Spending a week or so in a foreign city might be just the break that Josie really needs, we can't help thinking; she'll have an adventure and then come back home and settle down.

So instead of presenting us with the tedium of establishing a new life in a new apartment, the novelist dispatches her heroine to a famously chaotic city where anything can happen, where her companion is a presumably rejuvenating rock star. Josie's huge reawakened zest for life thus opens not onto niggling narcissistic concerns about the right color for the kitchen, but rather onto the Zócalo, where she serves as her friend's easy-going companion and enjoys every minute of it. I can't think of any literary character who has had a better time on a pleasure trip.

That's why (as I've heard) Ms Christensen has wisely labeled this a "beach book." A lot of fun things happen. Raquel not only leads a more exotic and colorful life than Josie does (almost anybody would, Josie's convinced), but she has more interesting friends. There are dinners with artists, and a midnight ride around the town. There is live music in a cantina, where Raquel joins an old friend on stage. There are trips to the museum and the arena. Far from taking it all for granted, Josie is always impressed by how well things work out: but it's a positive feeling that betrays bad experiences in the past.

We got out of the cab; it had been a very short ride, but we had all decided it was too cold to walk. We ducked under a red awning and went into a lobby that led into a great echoing hall filled with the clack of dominoes, cigarette smoke, and waiters rushing around in black jackets and pants, white shirts, and bow ties. I greatly loved the fact that seemingly all the waitpersons in Mexico, male and female, wore rather formal, old-fashioned uniforms. It seemed to translate into excellent, impersonally professional service.

Two of these waiters scurried around, pushing chairs and tables together in order to seat us all together. I had thought the place was jammed to the rafters when we walked in, but within five minutes, we were seated at four tables pushed together with exactly enough chairs to seat all fourteen of us. I found myself between Felipe and Eugenia; Raquel was at the foot of the table, deep in conversation with the large, sweet German girl. On Raquel's other side sat David. I was certain now that I had seen them at the gates to the mews, and that they had slipped off together into the street. I had a bad feeling about this, but why this should be, I wasn't sure.

It is not Josie's good times that hold our attention, but the shading of her response, her ability to enjoy some things while she worries about others. She enjoys the men she meets. She worries a lot about Raquel, obviously; and the book investigates the limits of that worry — Josie's limits, anyway: can you save a friend from herself? When, several days into their event-filled time in Mexico City, Josie discovers that her old friend has relapsed into an old drug habit that, years ago, almost killed her, she satisfies herself with the following conversation:

"I need to go to a loony bin?"

"A hospital," I said. "Otherwise, you're going to let yourself slide back into using again, and you will die of an overdose. I know you will. You will because you want to. This is my opinion as your friend and also as a shrink. You're suicidal, and you're begging me for help, and so I'm telling you what to do to save yourself, and I'm going to keep saying it until you do it."

But Josie does not keep saying it. She lets Raquel charm her into the distractions of stuff happening.

I insisted over breakfast that Raquel go with me to the bullfight. I refused to leave her alone, and I wanted to see Felipe and the bullfight, so that was the only possible solution to this logic puzzle. Since they were going to tag along aggressively anyway wherever we went, I figured we might as well have the photographer boys as our enlisted allies, rather than as unwanted antagonists and tormenters, so we decided to ask them to go with us, as well. The idea was that they would take pictures of Raquel enjoying herself very much without Jimmy Black and without any apparent guilt about the pregnant girlfriend; then would show all the assholes, Raquel said, that she wasn't hiding out in shame and sorrow, that she had already forgotten about it all and was having an exotic and adventurous vacation with her best friend, or, as Raquel put it, my MILF-type best friend."

I laughed. "That's a compliment, right?"

"Indeed, memsahib," she said.

The problem is that Josie falls for this charade at least as heavily as the paparazzi. What we have here, then, is a beach book with a heavy drape of moral ambiguity. Ms Christensen leaves the judgment of Josie to the book clubs. Raquel's best friend shares her grief with us, but not her remorse, if any. She gets on with her life, fairly certain that this is what Raquel would want her to do. As noted in the passage above, Josie "wanted to see Felipe": Felipe is the handsome thirty-something artist who jump starts Josie's sex life, in an erotic tale of postponement and climax that is about as candid as an account of such things can be without giving way to pornography or distastefulness. Raquel may have been dying inside, but Josie has been coming to life. For better or worse, these are the facts. You may judge them as you like, and resolve to do the same or something "better." It is both surprising and refreshing to be allowed by the author to think on this matter independently.

This is not to suggest that Josie is insouciant, or that Kate Christensen foregoes moral judgments. It's just that the judgments are never final and all-inclusive. If the novelist were indifferent to the matter of judgment, she would never have described her heroine's moral ambiguities so richly. Here is Josie, before her departure for Mexico, seeing her last day of patients.

I not only sympathized with Sasha's plight in a general way; I secretly considered my work with her to be a kind of penance for terrorizing my baby sister Juliet with many of the very same techniques her own older sisters had used on her. These included telling her direly in a hushed voice, as if it were a terrible family secret, that she was retarded or adopted, or both; reading her diary and correcting her spelling and grammar and writing comments in the margins; enchanting all her friends at her slumber parties and stealing them away from her; and putting manufactured notes into her textbooks, ostensibly from whatever boy she currently had a crush on, telling her she smelled of BO. Even my parents' general outlines, domineering father and repressed mother, had been similar to Sasha's. Needless to say, Juliet lived in London now and was distant and wary at our rare family gatherings. I wasn't proud of my earlier incarnation as her tormentor. Nor was I proud of the fact that to this day, my sister Jane and I shrieked with horrified, guilty laughter when we remembered what we'd done to her. Such was, of course, the Darwinian way of sibling birth order. As the responsible firstborn, I was glad to have the chance to help a client who was grappling with such a strikingly similar family history.

There is more than a whiff of letting oneself off easily here. But what is the alternative? Do we genuinely expect Josie to be seriously stricken with remorse? Would we be interested in her if she were, I don't think so.

Trouble is a richer book than it appears to be; at least, I found it so on a quick re-reading. Discussion of its subtleties are therefore premature; far worse than the sin of giving away the ending is the critic's theft of the reader's chance to meet a book freshly. For now, it suffices to say that Kate Christensen has created, in Josie, an affluent, educated Everywoman, no saint but far from really wicked; a woman, in the end, who shows us how much strength it takes to live with our besetting weaknesses. (June 2009)

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