Laura Rider's Masterpiece by Jane Hamilton prickles as a droll, bantering character study of marriage, adultery, and dilettante authors. Set in quaint Hartley, Wisconsin (population 3,700), Hamilton satirizes a culture yoked to Date Night and keeping marital passions blazing with peek-a-boo bras rather than shared interests.
The titular Laura Rider favors emoticons and flowery skirts that puff around the knees. Her vapory prettiness disguises a plodding ruthlessness, an "evil...bland as flummery". After 12 years of marriage to hunky goofball Charlie Rider, Laura turns their union platonic. She's "bombed-out" by his zesty libido and would rather plug away on writing a fictional romance about a "plain woman who becomes beautiful". Enter gawky Jenna Faroli, a local public radio host and Laura's intellectual ideal.
When Charlie and Jenna, who's wedded to a kindly judge, spark over a possible UFO sighting, Laura pounces, fanning an affair by emailing Jenna under Charlie's handle. Voila! Characters and plot devices for her romance don't need inventing. She'll simply re-report Charlie and Jenna's "kissy-face claptrap" as her own. This collapses when real intimacy interlopes.
Laura Rider's Masterpiece toggles constantly between Laura, Charlie, and Jenna. Narrator Alyssa Bresnahan inhabits each perspective mindfully. She transmits Charlie's jittery enthusiasm by revving up supper table exchanges with Laura. Around Jenna, Charlie becomes reflective and tender, so Bresnahan hangs back, revealing cracks in his cockiness with stuttering word breaks.
Jenna Faroli is world famous for her warm bath of a voice in which "you could hear her smile, the creases of it...the softest parting of her lips". Bresnahan hints at conflicted Jenna's delirious sexual awakening with velvety, caramelized tones. So Jenna mostly sounds gooey and languid, with the faintest steel tickle in her throat. Bresnahan's reading of Laura is both confessional and chirpy. Exclamations Eeeek! Pinch me! bubble out of Laura, and Bresnahan hyperventilates pointedly enough for you to picture insipid Laura Rider clapping both palms to her rosebud cheeks. Nita Rao
Married for 12 years, Laura and Charlie Rider have come to share almost everything: their nursery business, their love for their animals, and, most especially, their zeal for storytelling. And though they no longer share a bed, they are happy enough continuing along in their pleasant, platonic routine. Then Charlie begins an email exchange in earnest with Jenna Faroli, the host of a popular radio show, and, according to Laura, "the single most famous person in the town." Seeing her opportunity, Laura cannot resist using Charlie's new connection to promote her writing skills, and together, the couple crafts florid, strangely intimate messages that entice Jenna into their game. "The Project," as they come to call it, quickly spins out of control. As the lines between Laura's words and Charlie's feelings become blurred, Jenna finds herself affected in ways most disturbing, while Laura is transformed into an artist of the highest caliber...in her own mind. The end results are hilarious and poignant, and for Laura Rider, beyond even her wildest imagination.
©2009 Jane Hamilton; (P)2009 HarperCollins Publishers
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