LIZA Klaussmann’s debut novel, set on the East Coast of America and concentrating on the lives of two cousins, is probably the publishing industry’s hottest tip for the summer. And that vested interest matters more than usual, because the hand of the industry is surely detectable in the direction this tale takes.
Tigers in Red Weather
by Liza Klaussmann
Picador, 400pp, £12.99
For while there is much to admire here, there is, in the final analysis, an appeal to the commercial which leaves a slightly unpleasant taste in the mouth.
An appeal to the commercial is not necessarily always a bad thing, but it is bad if a better book might have emerged without it. Klaussmann, a New York Times journalist for ten years, might have gone for a more timely story, like Amy Waldeman’s Submission (see Paperbacks, page 3), so it’s rather admirable that she hasn’t. One the contrary, this story begins at the end of the Second World War. Two cousins, Nick and Helena, are in the garden of Nick’s New England family home, Tiger House, waiting. They’re waiting for their husbands: Helena is engaged to be married for the second time, to an insurance agent in Hollywood called Avery Lewis, whilst Nick’s husband, Hughes Derringer, is making his way back from war-torn Europe. Both of them feel the fear of spinsterdom; both of them feel relief at having avoided it.
But is marriage really the saviour it promises to be? Klaussmann begins slowly but inspiringly with Nick’s point of view as she traces the beginning of her married life, her feelings of disappointment at Hughes’s emotional distance, his conventional attitudes, her desire to be something more than his wife. But by the end of her narrative, she has discovered a love letter from a woman he met in England during the war, and her desire for escape is doused by fear of losing him. When the second section of the novel beings, it is 14 years later, and Nick’s daughter Daisy takes over the story.
Daisy – perhaps in a deliberate recall of the heroine of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, another tale of wealthy East Coast Americans who discover that all the glisters is not gold – grows up a privileged but unhappy girl. Her father is rich and her mother is good-looking and it may be summertime at their New England home, but Daisy feels peer pressure from richer, prettier girls, and she has an unrequited crush on a local boy, Tyler.
A family party provides the dénouement for many of her secret wishes and fears: she witnesses many strange things, like her odd, singular cousin Ed peeping at her mother showering; a party guest emerging with wet hair; Tyler kissing her rival, Peaches.
These first two sections set up the novel beautifully, providing a certain amount of intrigue between the cousins and their marriages – Helena is now staying at Nick’s house and whilst Daisy cannot completely understand what is wrong with her, it is clear she is ill and her marriage to Avery Lewis is over. There is a slightly soapy feel to the gossipy conversations and focus on emotions, but it suits the glamorous setting and the sense of characters just beginning to understand things about themselves and their world.
The problem with this structure though, emerges with the following three sections, where first Helena, then Hughes, then Daisy’s cousin Ed, take over in turn. Because we have had only glimpses in the first two sections, the rest of the novel feels compelled to explain and the next three sections are more like personal testimony than true narrative. Klaussmann therefore has to provide a rather artificial narrative on top: the story of a murder. Daisy’s section may begin with her discovery of the body of a strangled and battered maid from a neighbour’s house lying in the undergrowth, but it stays in the background.
With Helena, Hughes and Ed, it comes more to the fore, as it has to. Helen has things to explain – what has gone wrong with her marriage, what has gone wrong with her son, and of course, Hughes has to explain to the reader who his mystery woman from the war is, too. As if to prevent the stalling effect of such a lot of explanation, the murder gradually takes over the story.
And here we come to the “commercial” point. Klaussmann’s story about two East Coast families is dramatic enough, with their own secret desires and unspoken unhappinesses. The murder of the maid is an unnecessary addition to the dramatic tension between them all, and Ed’s final section feels particularly misplaced, a rather obvious and clunky piece in an extremely well-written novel that has valued delicacy and nuance for the bulk of its narrative.
Without the murder, Klaussmann would have been forced to delve deeper psychologically. But crime is a bestseller; sales command all.
• Lisa Klaussmann is at the Edinburgh book festival on 11 August.