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NY Times Sunday Book Review: "Unsworth’s strength is her bawdiness, her delight in language, her ability to build characters and pivot expertly between the tragic and the comic.”

Date: Sep 18 2015

At first glance, Unsworth’s second novel seems to revisit a familiar love triangle: Laura Joyce, a Manchester woman in her early 30s, must choose between her hard-partying, recklessly charming best female friend, Tyler, and her responsible fiancé, Jim. The polarities that can be spun from this — youth versus aging, dreams versus realities — are similarly simplistic and don’t do justice to what quickly develops into a nuanced, if stalled, portrait of a woman trying to find something in herself worth saving.

Unsworth’s strength is her bawdiness, her delight in language, her ability to build characters and pivot expertly between the tragic and the comic. Laura’s chemo-eaten father haunts the periphery of the book, “dark umbra eclipsing his eye sockets,” while her sister’s landlord boyfriend is unforgettably dismissed with “If he wasn’t forthcoming with boiler repairs then it didn’t bode well for cunnilingus.” She lays bare the bonds of close female friendship, those invisible sinews that simultaneously build us up and hold us back. “It’s that doppelgänger effect that can go either way: to mutual understanding or mutual destruction. Someone sees right to your backbone and simultaneously feels their backbone acknowledged.”

But Laura and Tyler soon find themselves increasingly isolated. Blacking out alone by the side of a road, Laura wonders: “Where were my allies? My sad captains? Those moonsick girls I drank with over long winters behind the bowling alley, driven there in cars we didn’t know.” It’s a strange lament from a woman in her 30s, and two-thirds into the novel, the coming-of-age conceit — the unformed soul tested by external forces — begins to wear thin. Loved by her family, reasonably employed and bracingly intelligent, Laura is not at the mercy of anything but herself, a circumstance that reads first as hilarious, then indulgent, and finally tiresome. The novel’s saving grace (and Laura’s too) is an ability to surface what is remarkable about human nature.