The Ghost in the Marriage 

Debut novel chronicles the dead places in suburbia

Debut novel chronicles the dead places in suburbia

O My Darling

By Amity Gaige (Other Press, 256 pp., $22)

Although self-help literature does little to trumpet its existence, and married friends are unlikely to advertise it, there is a dead spot in young marriage. It might arrive at six months, or not until after two years. But it does come. One moment you're happy and free, young and in love, and the next you are trapped in a coffin, sealed off from playfulness, clinging to happy memories of a childhood that you suddenly realize was more complicated than your child mind allowed. The effect is like suddenly realizing you've been embracing a skeleton. Being 7 years old feels a long way away.

With her limpid and eerie debut, O My Darling, Amity Gaige has constructed an entire novel about the fright-night feel of waking up in a marriage caught in this moment. In spite of the book's flaws, theknot.com would do a service to make it required reading for couples before they start letter-pressing their wedding invitations. For, by turning a simple story of marital unease into something creepier, Gaige has captured all the claustrophobic tumult of this brief moment of marital doubt. And not once does she point the finger at either of her characters.

This is remarkable because at first glance it seems Clark, the husband counterpart of her dual protagonists, is to blame. At the start of this novel, full of manly pride and forethought, he leverages himself and his young wife, Charlotte, into a starter home. Clark's emotionally troubled mother has at last died, setting him free, or so it would seem, from the past. The little yellow house on Quail Hollow Road in a town called Clementine is a fresh start, a new beginning.

Why, then, does he feel so detached and apart, so nostalgic for the past? To her credit, Charlotte listens and coaxes talk out of him. But it's of no use. Clark has already retreated into his own world, evidenced by the fact that he keeps seeing flickering shadows in the night. Once there's a shape by the doorframe; another time he can swear he hears voices. With great relief he plunges headfirst into a strange friendship with two local children who need a daytime playmate. At least they are real.

Perhaps it's the influence of one too many Hitchcock films, but it's hard not to spend a good part of this novel waiting for the revelation that these children are ghosts. Happily, O My Darling is not that kind of novel. Although she flirts with the otherworldly, Gaige never plunges through to the other side. She understands that the longer things go unexplained, the more mysterious and symbolic they become. A ghost is just a ghost, but the premonition of a ghost is more interesting.

Besides, if this were a haunted book, fear and horror would unite Clark and Charlotte, and that doesn't happen here. Even when Charlotte begins to wonder if that fuzzy shape in the corner of her vision is a ghost or the gin talking, the fear isolates her from Clark. By that point, he has apparently moved on, making his separate peace with doubt. Clark copes by retreating into fantasy: by playing hooky from adult life with those two children, he re-creates the summer days he never had with his mother. Charlotte, however, wallows in dread. Does Clark love her enough not to succumb to the madness which clearly lurks in his family line?

O My Darling is a creepy and fascinating book when Gaige allows the nearly supernatural forces to marshal her themes. It is a tedious and overwritten one, though, when she tries to explain what her characters are feeling. Here, for instance, is Clark coming to the kind of opaque epiphany that happens all too frequently in this book: "Then Clark experienced a moment of pointed clarity. A moment of doubtlessness. A kind of unbearable knowledge, unbearably right—heretofore hidden this whole, dreadful summer, his whole life perhaps—cut through the fog in his mind. What was real? Well, this was real. He and the pool and the boy were the realest things on earth at the moment."

The instinct to describe a character's emotions is not, by nature, a dubious act; Cheever did it beautifully in stories about men and women lumbering through the same problems. But it requires a kind of knowing remove that Gaige cannot maintain for more than a few pages at a time here. She is too earnest and intent on making us know her characters' pain rather than letting it rise off them like the stink of a gin hangover. As a result, this is a deeply uneven book. It seesaws between moments of terrific shapeliness and strangeness to pointless set pieces that feel contrived.

And so, to enjoy O My Darling fully, one must read it at full tilt, never stopping in a trough, never getting overly optimistic at one of its summits. Oddly enough, this could also be taken as good advice for marriage as well. One cannot expect each day to be a chorus of crescendos, as Clark and Charlotte clearly do at the start of this book. Let the days pass, Gaige suggests, and hold on just a little while longer. Things do turn out for the best sometimes. But ponder too hard, as Clark and Charlotte nearly do here, and you might just get the scare of your life.

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