05.28.09

Chick Lit for the Smart Set

Kate Christensen’s new novel, Trouble, is a pitch-perfect look at female friendships and the potent sexual desires of women over 40. By Caryn James.

Kate Christensen’s new novel, Trouble, is a pitch-perfect look at female friendships and the potent sexual desires of women over 40. 

Authors and publishers may love literary awards, but readers have cause to be wary. How often have you picked up a book with some glittery “Winner of ...” sticker and been appalled at how tedious, earnest, or pretentious it turned out to be? So even after Kate Christensen won last year’s PEN/Faulkner Award for her novel The Great Man, I wasn’t tempted to read it until someone I trusted gave me a copy. (OK, it was her editor—but I trusted him anyway.)

He and those judges were right. I was hooked by Christensen’s narrative, awed by her psychological astuteness as she spun a story not about a great artist but about the women he left behind—the real wife, the shadow wife with another whole family, and the sister with a secret—not to mention dueling biographers fighting over the life of this low-grade Picasso. Of course, thinking The Great Man was terrific was no guarantee that Christensen’s other books would be any good. But they are. Christensen—author of three previous novels and a new one, Trouble—is a contender for the title Best Novelist You Haven’t Been Reading.

You have to love a novel that parodies Perez Hilton so deliciously, turning him into a blogger named Mina Boriqua.

Each of her books features characters drastically different from those in the previous novels; Trouble gives us a faded rock star and her best friend, a psychotherapist. But the books are united by piercing psychological insights that seem (yet can’t be) effortlessly dropped into storytelling so fluid it keeps you up late at night reading one more chapter, then another.

Those qualities, and her precise observations of New York City’s places and lives, were evident even in her first novel, 1999’s In the Drink, but its plot about a single young woman working as an assistant and ghost writer for a shrew led the book to be mistakenly slotted as a Bridget Jones clone. From then on, the easy accessibility of her style may have obscured the risks she has taken. In her second book she switched genders. The narrator of the wry Jeremy Thrane (2001) is a gay man dumped by his closeted, movie-star boyfriend. And her most audacious novel, The Epicure’s Lament (2004), puts us in the mind of a spectacularly unappealing narrator, a smug, indolent man living on his inheritance, willfully smoking himself to death after he is diagnosed with a rare disease that will kill him unless he gives up cigarettes.

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By Kate Christensen. Doubleday. 320 pages. $26. ()

You wouldn’t call The Great Man the literary equivalent of Oscar bait. After all, it has a cast of older women and Christensen’s utterly accessible style. But you can see why it became her breakout, with its sophisticated take on art and biography (themes literary judges can easily embrace), and its layered portrait of the not-so-great man, who is dead before we get there.

Trouble may not have the heft of The Great Man, but it is easily Christensen’s sexiest book and among her wittiest. With its whiff of chick-lit, but smarter, it also offers a savvy blend of commercial appeal and literary flair.

Raquel is the 45-year-old former rock star trying to make a comeback. “Her name was as familiar as Bonnie Raitt’s or P.J. Harvey’s,“ Christensen writes, handing us a key to her music. Raquel is also a former drug addict with a lingering instinct for self-destruction.

Josie, the therapist and narrator, has a newly found instinct for self-preservation. Married to a depressed academic who ignores her, with a 13-year-old daughter who can’t stand to be in the room with her, Josie begins the novel heading to a Christmas party given by her friend Indrani. Inseparable in college, Indrani, Raquel, and Josie share an unbreakable friendship even now.

Glimpsing herself in the mirror, seeing a still-vibrant (if just barely) woman, Josie leaves the party thinking she has to end her marriage; when she goes to a bar, then lets a handsome stranger take her home, she’s sure. The way Josie almost backs herself into this decision suggests how solidly Christensen has created the psychological underpinnings of the novel, how deftly she has constructed a living, breathing character on top of it.

Christensen—author of three previous novels and a new one, Trouble—is a contender for the title Best Novelist You Haven’t Been Reading.

Raquel has her own problems. She is suddenly the main story on all the gossip blogs, labeled a home wrecker because she has been spotted with her much younger boyfriend, an actor with a pregnant girlfriend. You have to love a novel that parodies Perez Hilton so deliciously, turning him into a blogger named Mina Boriqua, who draws horns on a photo of Raquel , white goo streaming out of her crotch.

Hiding out in Mexico City, Raquel begs Josie to join her, and the novel really takes off. In Mexico the women visit cantinas, drink and smoke, and meet David, an American-educated Mexican with only one arm who sits in the plaza weaving landscapes out of straw and sends the money to a village threatened by a logging company. Josie, who is not a psychologist for nothing, instantly distrusts David. But she falls for his friend Felipe, and has some of the best sex of her life.

Christensen’s wit never falters. As Raquel gains perspective on her affair, she wonders how she could have fallen so hard for a guy who’s the star of an HBO series called Endless Pool. (Think Entourage but with a guy who works for his father’s pool-supply company.) “’He’s an actor,’ she said. ‘They’re like poodles, but stupid.’”

And her psychological observations have never been sharper. Listening to a patient caught up in a volatile adulterous affair, Josie envies her:  “I was burning to know what it felt like to be alive again, what it felt like to fuck someone you were madly in love with, what it felt like to be willing to throw away everything for that, because I had no idea.” It’s the “no idea” that lands so poignantly, registering an enormous sense of loss.

Shrewd though it is about fame and dead marriages, at heart the novel are the intricacies of female friendship. The three-way relationship of Indrani, Josie and Raquel is fraught with secrets and shifting alliances. Josie is shocked at how unsympathetic Indrani is about her marital breakup, complains about it to Raquel, and on and on. Everyone is judging everyone else, with unshakable sisterly affection.

“It’s only feelings,” Josie tells Raquel about her shattered affair, repeating the shorthand the friends have used since college to comfort each other through breakups, blowups, and other emotional disasters. The line isn’t working this time. Maybe Josie should have grasped that as a sign of major trouble.

The novel’s ending is thoroughly shocking, although what happens may be less upsetting than Josie’s reaction to it. Her response, a Scarlett O’Hara-like “I’ll think about it tomorrow,” strikes me as unhealthy at best. But as in all Christensen’s deceptively easy yet compelling fiction, this nuanced touch feels absolutely real.

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Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Marie Claire and The New York Times Book Review. She was a film critic, chief television critic and critic-at-large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew.