Doubleday: 312 pp., $26
"Trouble," the latest novel by Kate Christensen, has a fantastic first chapter. Josie, the main character and a psychotherapist with a private practice, is at a party.
"Just then, I caught sight of a reflection of a woman in the tilted gilt-edged mirror across the room. She was dressed similarly to me, so I tilted my head to get a better look at her. As I did so, the woman tilted her head to match the movement of mine. I raised my wineglass; she raised hers along with me.
"It was then, in that instant, that I knew that my marriage was over."
Josie has become so out of touch with who she is that she cannot recognize her physical self. It is chilling. And on the next page, she goes on to say how beautiful she found that reflection and how, in her mid-40s, she had no idea she still looked so vibrant and alive.
Josie's positive mirror experience changes her life dramatically. After the party and after her decision to leave her marriage, she ends up on her knees in the bedroom of a total stranger. Shocking, dangerous, but believable and fascinating. The reader is immediately both attracted and repelled by Josie and her choices.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book never quite measures up to the promise of this beginning. From the prickly, uncomfortable excitement of the opening, it descends into an insulated and almost boring chronicle of her next few weeks. Josie goes home, goes to bed, wakes up, drinks coffee and goes to work. We get a thumbnail version of her sensitive and intelligent therapy sessions with four patients. That evening, calmly and matter-of-factly, Josie tells Anthony, her husband of 15 years, that she wants a separation but that he can keep their Manhattan apartment. "Yes," he said. "The apartment was mine to begin with. And you're so much more adaptable than I am to new places. I'll help you in any way I can, of course." Then they make love one last time.
Still in their robes, Anthony and Josie sit down to tell their 13-year-old daughter, Wendy, about their separation. Earlier, Josie worried about the intractable Wendy and describes her as "slammed permanently shut against me." But when Wendy hears that her parents are separating, she says only, "I know it's not my fault. How could it be? It's your marriage, and I'm just a kid." She wants to know if she can stay in the apartment -- which parent she lives with seems unimportant -- and Josie thinks to herself, "It would be awkward at first for my husband and daughter, just the two of them there, without me."
Wait. What happened to the woman who woke up when she saw her foxy self in that mirror? Wasn't she going to start feeling things? Wasn't her passionless life going to change? But why should it when everything is so easy? Josie rents an apartment -- in a day. Then her oldest friend, an aging rock star and ex-junkie named Raquel, gets embroiled in a scandal and asks Josie to hide away with her in Mexico City. Luckily, Josie always takes two weeks off at exactly this time of year. Obviously, money is no object. Of course, Wendy is happy to stay with Dad as long as Mom sends back reports of Raquel's famous life. And dear, sweet, understanding Anthony has all the time in the world to squire a tween through Manhattan.
Christensen is the author of four previous novels, including "The Great Man," which won the PEN/Faulkner Award. In that book, three septuagenarian women are brought together after many years apart. Like Josie, these women are emotionally distant from the people in their lives, particularly the painter, the "great man" of the title, whom they all loved. But in the earlier book, the painter has been dead for five years. The women are not friends. Their children are grown. It makes perfect sense that these women are distant and reflective. The book is about looking back. In "Trouble," Josie has no such excuse. She is in the middle of her life, her husband and child are still very much present, she is looking forward, not back. She should be deeply engaged with her troubled friend, the marriage she is leaving, and the man (of course, handsome and wealthy) whom she meets in Mexico.
Christensen writes beautifully. She is great at sex scenes and can make your mouth water when she writes about food. She gives us pages of description of Mexico City, and every meal, every drink, every cobblestone that Josie and Raquel traverse is explained in detail. The reader waits for the story to kick in again. A novel should transcend travelogue. It is not what Josie sees that is important but how she sees it. Her few insights are snotty and superior: The shopping street in Mexico City is "au courant in New York circa 1983"; a woman's haircut is "a kind of pageboy; I hadn't seen one of those in awhile." Nothing seems to remind her of Anthony or Wendy. There is very little thought of her dissolving marriage. She drinks a lot and smokes a lot and flirts and makes out with the man she meets as if that means she is changing her life.
In the end, Josie is actually just like that vision in the mirror: brittle, flat and simply a reflection of what could be.
Wagman is the author of the novels "Skin Deep," "Spontaneous" and "Bump."