FICTION: A couple are separated on 9/11, which leads to a personal crisis and coverup.
There’s a significant risk in freighting a love story with the weight of 9/11’s horror. For all his storytelling skill, Richard Bausch in his 12th novel, “Before, During, After,” the tale of a couple whose nascent relationship is changed forever by the events of that day, can’t bear that burden.
There are 16 years that separate them, but when Episcopal priest Michael Faulk and senatorial aide Natasha Barrett meet at a Washington party in the spring of 2001, their attraction is instantaneous. Both are struggling to recover from failed relationships. Michael is about to abandon the priesthood, and Natasha is ready to leave her political work to pursue her dream of a career as a watercolorist. Soon they’re planning a fall wedding.
On the day of the attacks, Natasha is enjoying a Jamaican vacation with a friend, while Michael is in New York City. Unable to connect in the chaotic aftermath, Natasha fears that her fiancé, who’s safe in his Midtown hotel, has been killed. But something worse awaits her: a rape at the hands of another resort guest, an assault she decides to conceal.
When the lovers reunite, two-thirds of the novel remains. As their wedding approaches, Natasha struggles with the memory of the rape, determined to “live it down, live past it, find a way to forget it ever happened.” Michael grows increasingly troubled, certain she’s hiding something from him. That rising tension plays out in interior monologues and lengthy conversations, often fueled by excessive drinking, that after a time take on a static quality. Natasha can’t bring herself to recount the horrific events of Jamaica, while Michael begins to doubt her affection for him. But by the time their conflict reaches its apex, its dramatic power largely has dissipated.
For all the gravity of its themes — the devastating power of secrets and the horror experienced by a victim of sexual assault — the novel ultimately is undone by a feeling of slackness, whether it’s the generic quality of its prose (characters described as “pleasant,” “wonderful” or “very mild”) or scenes, especially those that occur after Natasha and Michael are reunited, that drift into melodrama. While Bausch does succeed in capturing our free-floating national anxiety after 9/11, the psychological acuity he demonstrated in fine works of short fiction such as “Wives & Lovers” and “Someone is Out There,” is absent here.
After a career that’s spanned more than three decades, Bausch remains one of those writers whose esteem among discerning readers, unfairly, has never been matched by equivalent commercial success. It would be a pleasure to announce that this novel should change that, but readers who want to discover his best work should look elsewhere.
Harvey Freedenberg is a freelance reviewer and member of the National Book Critics Circle. He writes from Harrisburg, Pa.