Fifteen years ago, Susan Morrow left her first husband Edward Sheffield, an unpublished writer. Now, she’s enduring middle class suburbia as a doctor’s wife, when out of the blue she receives a package containing the manuscript of her ex-husband’s first novel. He writes asking her to read the book; she was always his best critic, he says.
I loved this book. So much. As I read I found so much to quote, I didn’t stop to write every bit out, but quite for quite a few I had to. It was so great.
I initially started reading it because I had really enjoyed Nocturnal Animals, and that film was based on this book. The film is also fascinating and intriguing in its own way, but the book… this book is just wonderful.
Susan is our main narrator. She receives a book from her ex-husband, Edward, and over the course of three nights she reads it. The book is a thriller, a family driving to Maine are run off the road, and violent terrible things happen. Edward’s book is all about that event, and the fall out from it. Susan’s story is all about the act of reading that book, but also the memories that thinking about her ex bring up. And her feelings about her current life.
Have I said yet that I loved it?
Okay, I suppose I have, but I really did. It is just such an interesting book, it really makes you think. And I loved the way Susan thought about the book she was reading, the act of reading itself is central to her story. Books about books! what could be better?
I loved Susan’s feelings about books, how she was hesitant sometimes to start one, because books require an investment, time and thought. And by the time you finish a book you have been to different places, been different people, forced to think differently. Susan worries that “
she could be a different person by the time she’s through“. How perfect is that? She’s also very aware of the author as author. How Edward is guiding the reader’s expectations. How everything that happens in a story happens because of the author. And I love that she appreciates that fact. Authors need to be aware that they have created that entire universe, and so when they populate their book with horrible things and horrible people they don’t get to say “but sure reality is like that” because a book is not reality. It is a totally fabricated story and the author needs to be aware of that1. I also really identified with Susan’s acknowledgement that we read stories that often depend on bad things happening to the characters. “
how much her pleasure depends on his distress.“.
I’ve already written almost 500 words2 and I haven’t even touched on the depiction of women and violence against women!
Because, and slight spoiler alert here, but its covered in many blurbs so I’m not going to hide it, Edward’s book features the kidnapping, rape, and murder of two women. Laura and Helen, the wife and daughter of Tony Hastings. Tony is the main protagonist of Nocturnal Animals, the book within Tony and Susan
On one level it is a fairly standard thriller, but on the other hand Tony is a clear example of a man who is motivated and driven by things that happen to “his women”. Laura and Helen are clear examples of fridged women, they are there to be hurt and murdered, in order to create Tony’s story. And along the way Tony reveals that he wants revenge because he wants those who hurt him3 to be punished in order to realise that they can’t get away with that, they cannot do that to him. It centres the entire tragedy on him, as so many of these stories do, the women are props. There to display that he is a man.
And I read that story as quite explicitly calling out that as wrong. Others may not read the book in the same way. Perhaps Wright is as guilty as Edward here?
But as well as that story there is also Susan’s story. Her life with Edward, and after him, with Arnold.
It is an examination of the roles people play in relationships. In her relationship with Edward Susan was the one who initiated a lot of things. But at the same time she was expected to support Edward, to give up her own dreams in order to work and support him financially as he lived the life of a “writer”. She was also expected to critique his work, but when she did so honestly she was punished4 and accused of not being supportive enough. Of no understanding how hard it was to be a writer. Later, in her life with Arnold she finds herself once again subsumed into the supporting role. He has the prestigious career, she is determined to be supportive and loyal after what happened in her first marriage, she will not leave again, and so she becomes wife and mother without a life outside the home. Expected always to go along with things, to not raise objections, to not be “difficult”.
There is also this idea throughout the novel that Tony’s story, the book Edward wrote, is some sort of revenge. Revenge for Susan leaving him in the first place. And that, to me, is a perfect indictment of Edward as a person. He is equating a relationship ending with rape and murder. How self centred and arrogant is that!
I’ve probably forgotten half of what I meant to say about this book, but I’ve said more than enough I reckon. Give this book a go, and then come back and let me know what you thought.