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BOOK REVIEW

A complex journey into lovers' hearts and minds

So Long at the Fair; A Novel; Christina Schwarz; Doubleday: 244 pp., $24.95

July 14, 2008|Dinah Lenney | Special to The Times

Count on Christina Schwarz to tackle the ties that bind -- family, friendship, marriage -- and their unraveling in spite of themselves. Like her first two novels, "So Long at the Fair" is a thriller and a mystery as well as character-driven literary fiction.

Here, the starring players are a woman named Freddi; a married couple, Ginny and Jon; and Freddi's friend Ethan in a crucial supporting role.

Ethan is in love with Freddi. He's planning to marry her, never mind that she thinks they're just good friends. When the reader first meets him he's bothered, because Freddi "hung up the phone so abruptly, without even saying goodbye."

Of course the reader was privy to that call in a previous chapter, knows that Freddi tried not once but several times to end the call and that Ethan wouldn't let her off the phone.

We know too, although Ethan does not, that she's rushing to get ready for Jon, who's just arrived at her place for some weekend delight.

It's not giving anything away to say that Ethan's behavior smacks of pathological. He keeps binoculars in his glove compartment. He drives over to spy on Freddi after she hangs up. He parks in "what he'd come . . . to think of as his usual spot."

But when he sees Jon standing outside, he's relieved. Freddi works with Jon, which explains, in Ethan's mind, her behavior on the phone: "[I]t was awkward to conduct a personal conversation in front of a colleague."

Ethan is clueless, and Ethan is trouble, and we keep turning pages. In the hands of a writer as skillful as Schwarz, it isn't necessarily a matter of who; the what and where, how and why are more than enough to keep us engaged.

As demonstrated in "Drowning Ruth," an Oprah Book, and the critically acclaimed "All Is Vanity," Schwarz is good with place, character, and bringing the lens disturbingly and deliciously close.

Here's Ethan after a date and a chaste goodbye from Freddi: "Driving home, he thought about her kiss. What had it meant? He pulled his teeth over his lips, top and bottom, as if they were artichoke leaves."

And Jon, momentarily disenchanted with his lover: "She had a strangely small head, he noticed for the first time. He felt an urge to give it a little squeeze, as if juicing an orange."

Schwarz is also good at suspense. Two stories, inextricably tangled, unspool in "So Long at the Fair" in alternating chapters. In present-day Madison, Wis., Ginny and Jon are long-married and have all but given up on conceiving a child. Jon, as noted, is cheating with Freddi, his work mate in an advertising firm.

In 1963, meanwhile, two young couples -- Bud and Marie, Clark and Hattie -- are involved in a drama that can't help but inform the lives of their unborn children. Did or didn't Bud's best friend, Walter Fleischer, rape Hattie, who is not yet married to Clark?

Marie and Clark are determined to convince Bud of Walter's guilt, and the repercussions over four decades have everything and nothing to do with understanding Ginny and Jon's current predicament.

Each plot creates a terrible sense of foreboding, but Schwarz's efforts to string the reader along can sometimes feel too writerly, her withholding of important information too manipulative. Clever as it is, the back story is ultimately distracting, as is Ethan, who might have worked beautifully as a red herring but who in fact seems cartoonish and overwrought in the middle of what look to be exquisitely painful, if ordinary, circumstances.

In an interview, Schwarz explained she was interested in adultery and that "So Long at the Fair" is based on the idea that "all the parties involved in an adulterous relationship could be sympathetic." If there's a flaw at the heart of this novel, it's two-pronged: the author's determination to keep the players civilized, and her unwillingness to entirely commit to her own fascination with the subject for its own sake.

In the world of this book, sympathetic people -- though they may deserve to be punished for secrets and lies -- are not likely to go to extraordinary lengths by themselves, not even in the throes of passion and betrayal.

Bottom line, it appears Schwarz doesn't trust her protagonists -- Freddi, Jon or Ginny -- to carry the day, nor, without the punctuation of violence and shame, does she trust her readers to stay tuned. Although in the past she has proved a skilled and nuanced illuminator of the most usual of human behaviors, in this book she indulges in what feel like "high-concept" preoccupations, avoiding the more devastating gut-punch she might have delivered.

It's as though Schwarz convinced herself that regular people can't muck things up, that relationships don't fray and fall apart all the time without the intervention of family or psychopaths or both.

Or maybe she just got carried way, forgetting what she showed us in "Drowning Ruth" -- that the most basic crimes of the heart are complicated and tragic enough all by themselves.

--

Dinah Lenney is the author of "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir."

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