The Leisure Circle, Middlesex, c.1980 (200 pages) dedication: For Marianne, Jeanette, Frank and Stuart
dedication: For Marianne, Jeanette, Frank and Stuart
The blurb on the back:
At twenty-three, Irene Rutledge seems to have the world by the tail: she's a beauty, the shining star of her college English Department, a witty young lady who is the envy of her friends. Hardly the type you'd expect to be a murderess. What sets Irene on the path to murder is, of course, love. She has more or less counted on not falling in love with anyone, and prided herself on the casualness of her affairs. But Frank Mattison was something else again, a mysterious and fascinating figure who seemed to elude Irene's most ingenious attempts to charm him. Even after the wedding, Frank kept his mysteries to himself. Even after his uninvited sister Vivian made a surprise appearance at the wedding (driving Frank into a panic). Even after Frank began to monopolize their small daughter's attentions. Even after Irene's private terrors began. Frank's deepest secret turns out to be horrible beyond imagining - but Irene has already committed herself to a course of action that can only lead to murder.
We start with the female narrator on trial for a murder which she admits in the first paragraph that she did indeed commit. The remainder of the book is then an account of the last twenty years of her life, from student days on through her marriage to the crime itself. It's an inspired structure, with the knowledge of the ending - though not the circumstances, consequences or victim - hanging ominously over the story, imparting an air of inevitable tragedy even when the events described seem innocently happy.
There are two intertwined themes running through the tale. There is the fragmentation of American society, from the solid security of the 1950s through the political turmoil of the '60s to the generational alienation of the '70s. And paralleling this bonfire of the certainties there is the microcosm of the narrator's marriage: she marries a fellow student who seems intelligent, ambitious and confident, and then watches as his past comes back to haunt him and things start to fall apart. The sense that the seeds of corruption and destruction were present even when life was simple is unavoidable.
It's a classic Gothic double-bind. On the one hand, there is a feeling that, as one character points out: 'What's wrong with this country is that there's no allegiance anymore, particularly to the family.' On the other hand, there is the fact that the dangers come from within the institution of the family itself. All very horror, despite the Edgar Award nomination it got.
I know that there are some books included on this site for reasons not entirely connected to their inherent literary worth, but this is an exception. It's a tremendous book: thoroughly gripping, a masterpiece of American gothic and one of the towering cultural achievements of the 1970s. It'd also make a fine film vehicle for, say, Tilda Swinton and Brent Spiner.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 5/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 3/5