Fifteen years ago Susan Morrow left her first husband, Edward Sheffield, an unpublished writer.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. As Susan reads, she is drawn into the fictional life of Tony Hastings, a math professor driving his family to their summer house in Maine. And as we read with her, we, too, become lost in Sheffield's thriller. As the Hastings' ordinary, civilized lives are disastrously, violently sent off course, Susan is plunged back into the past, forced to confront the darkness that inhabits her, and driven to name the fear that gnaws at her future and will change her life.
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Originally released 1993, adapted in 2016 to film by Tom Ford,Tony & Susan is now known as Nocturnal Animals, and I think the novel is also being re-released with that same title. Having seen a big chunk of the rough cut of the movie that this will finally be, I think this might be one of those rare incidents where the film might be better than the book -- but back to Wright's novel, and to author Austin Wright because this is a book where the author feels very present. There's a point in the book where a comment is made, "why can't readers simply be readers and writers simply take a bow." The remark struck me as the subconscious longing of a writer very conscious of (maybe even a bit ambivalent towards) the impact of the reader on the social success of an author's work. That rhetorical sigh turned out to be the hidden emphasis of this *novel in a novel.*
Susan Morrow, now an English professor and a 49 yr. old mother of three, married to a prominent (and philandering) heart surgeon, receives a manuscript from her estranged first husband, Edward, 25 yrs. after their divorce. Married in college, Susan had secret aspirations to write; Edward was going to be a lawyer. After several years of law school, Edward announces out of the blue that he HAS to be a writer. He pursues the *calling* with the reclusive passion of Salinger, and the concentration of Thoreau. The abrupt change in a path that Susan had already plotted out far into a bright future is the beginning of the disillusion of the marriage. Just prior to the divorce Susan reads Edward's work and gives him a scathing review. Here is where you get the first little inkling that perhaps there is more driving Susan's negative reaction than Edward's lack of talent. You find yourself entertaining a flicker of ... Susan's jealousy, perhaps? Or is it Edward's own little deviance beginning to show up? Now, 25 yrs. later, Susan stands with manuscript in hand, a little peeved at her ex's audacity. After all, she is a *serious* reader; this will take time; she invests herself in what she reads, emotionally as well as with her time. And, she's so busy with husband Arnold being out of town at a conference, with his nurse...his pretty, young nurse....
The novel within quickly becomes electrifying and dark as the story progresses. The characters, a husband and wife and their daughter, are harassed by fellow travelers on a dark road late at night. (It's a mean hook!) Susan feels herself being dragged into the book. On the brink of being completely consumed, she pulls up, again faulting Edward's *inferior* writing assaulting her superior reading qualities. It's a breath-of-fresh-air technique; remember Peter Faulk as grandpa reading Princess Bride to his reluctant grandson? When things got tense for Buttercup, the grandson interrupts the story with eager questions and wide eyes, feigning indifference. The listener/reader gets to escape what's to come through the release of sharing the thoughts of the *character reader.* It works great in Princess Bride, and on some level with Tony & Susan, but author Wright never seems to allow you to form your opinions or your own questions. These moments (when Susan puts down the novel to attend to real-life) feel heavily manipulated by Wright. It could either be brilliant writing, or heavy-handedness. When my feelings conflicted with Susan's, I didn't have the sense that I was allowed to have my own thoughts. My process felt confused rather than curious. I felt my perceptions were always redirected to what Wright wanted them to be to fit within his concept of the novel.
Aside from feeling a little man-handled, I have to say that the architecture of the novel is creative and very interesting. The play on the characters in Edward's novel, and the characters reading his novel (good grief that sounds confusing!) is clever and at times downright creepy. Let's just say without giving away anything: art does indeed imitate life. The novel in the novel (Edward's manuscript) is freaky with strong psychological components that really make you wonder about Edward's soundness. Near the finish, the within-novel deviates from what has been a well-conceived and delivered plot line, it's a little wild, but it winds up okay, bolstered by the great wrap of of the novel itself. The production is done well and the way the narrator frames each section makes it clear which story you are reading so there is no confusion. I'd recommend; hang on through the choppy sections and you'll appreciate a smart conclusion that will keep you thinking for a while. [*And, make no mistake about it! This is nothing like Princess Bride--nothing at all!]
I thought this was an original premise, and looked forward to reading this book, as I am attracted by the idea of revisiting past decisions and projecting how outcomes might be the same or different if we followed a different path. The alternate path is presented here by the intrusion into the life of a settled suburban wife, mother, teacher, of a manuscript by a previous husband, an event and situation which becomes cause for reflection on what could or would have been had she made different choices. The pondering occurs at various intervals in the story as the eponymous Susan makes her way through the manuscript.
There are many effective theatrical touches - alternating scenes of domestic tranquility and dark terror as Susan reads Tony's story of loss, violence and tragedy but I am baffled as to what it all adds up to. There seems to be little personal growth, change, acceptance or realization, and the violence seems rather pointless.
Narratively, about three quarters through this book the story loses its mojo and the attenuated violence seems to drag on unnecessarily. Where I first was caught in the grip of Tony's story and its sinister rhythm, I lost interest eventually.
Very well-written, though, with ideal performances by both narrators, and in spite of the middling 3-stars I'm bestowing, I still give it a "thumbs-up".