Pulitzer finalist Christine Schutt's 2004 novel, "Florida," dealt with an orphan girl who seeks refuge in books. Schutt's latest, "Prosperous Friends," has at its center two characters who are equally bookish, but who seek refuge in each other, "in the intimate familiar that was marriage." However, it isn't long before one succumbs to the temptation of an old flame and the other surrenders to a new infatuation. Schutt captures a marriage on the rocks and then charts the ensuing landslide in language that is by turn poetically mesmeric and brutally unsentimental.
Ned and Isabel are thirtysomething writers who, shortly after their "whimsical wedding," decamp to London on a fellowship. He is "a man handsomer than Rossetti," full of creative promise; she is pretty but with few hobbies and lacking direction. The rot sets in on a disastrous trip to Oxford, where Ned sees Isabel in a new light: "An assassin's face was sweeter than hers." We cut to New York one year later, but grief caused by dead pets and Ned's rekindled interest in his ex, Phoebe, drives a further wedge between husband and wife. Ned, though, is quick to blame, believing his marriage has been "diluted" by Isabel's failure to make something of herself. Not his bad deeds, then, but "an absence of event."
A final change of scene leads to the final throes of their relationship. An ocean retreat in Maine called the Bridge House serves as a last-chance saloon. Schutt introduces two new characters, celebrated painter Clive and his poet wife, Dinah, who run this "loosely amorous residence open to artists." In contrast to Ned and Isabel's thrifty display of love, these two are "prosperous," although not enough to rescue their guests' bankrupted marriage -- a state of affairs that isn't helped by Isabel becoming much more than Clive's muse.
"Prosperous Friends" is slim and thin on plot, its characters hazy wraiths rather than full-bodied creations. But these are deliberate ploys on Schutt's part. She favors atmosphere, beguiling us with scant, brittle prose, and impressing with forensic attention to detail. She expertly compresses her tragedy into a series of tight, taut, bite-sized traumas instead of long, drawn-out conflicts. Miniature time-shifts jerk us backwards and forward ("The dog died, he crossed the Rainbow Bridge, but before that ...") and ragtag images and fractured thoughts jostle in the same sentence. ("After the smear of lunch, blue skies and a chance to play with watercolors, sleep, no swimming today.") Schutt's writing dazzles while it disorients.
This is a beautiful but disquieting novel about broken vows and hearts, with husband and wife learning the hard way that "there may be cures to loneliness but marriage is not one of them."
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.