'Prosperous Friends': a marriage without benefits

With exquisite language and hypnotic control, Christine Schutt portrays a troubled marriage in full.

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There is no hope for Ned and Isabel Bourne. Christine Schutt's new novel watches as the couple inhabits the last moments of their married estrangement. Her meticulously crafted prose drags the couple through affairs and struggles with artistic expression. Though it can be difficult to become invested in the characters, Ms. Schutt keeps you wondering about the outcome in her haunting take on the time after novelty has faded from love.


"PROSPEROUS FRIENDS"

By Christine Schutt
Grove Press ($24).


Ms. Schutt often takes on intimate relationships in her work, expanding and exaggerating them. She is the author of two collections of short stories as well as two previous novels, one of which, "Florida," was a finalist for the National Book Award, the other, "All Souls," a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

In "Prosperous Friends," Ms. Schutt follows Ned and Isabel Bourne for two years, through London, New York and Maine. From the beginning, the couple is dealing with missed communication and self-involved distractions. Both are writers, Ned marginally more successful than Isabel, seemingly because he has a bigger artistic ego. Through their travels, Ned and Isabel are exposed to other people, including old and new lovers. Finally, Ms. Schutt juxtaposes the young couple with the pairing of an older painter, Clive Harris, and his younger wife, Dinah.

The draw of "Prosperous Friends" is Ms. Schutt's language, the way she expertly crafts the rhythm of every sentence. Seeing Isabel through Ned's eyes, "Turned away from him, she was an old woman, a bone, a crone, a downwardly sloped shape in a thin bathrobe, purposeless and derisible." Each sentence is carefully weighed, a balance of sounds and feeling, providing a hypnotic draw into the story.

The novel is divided into sections by place, though the year is also listed. For Isabel and Ned, their environment is the only thing that changes throughout the novel. Their relationship remains constant -- the begrudging sex, an inability to communicate, the need to bring other people into the void of their marriage.

Even the switches of location are noticeable because of the people Isabel and Ned interact with -- from an older couple at a B&B, to Ned's creepy friend in England, to his ex-girlfriend in New York and Clive and Dinah in Maine -- rather than the Bournes themselves. Only at the end, when Ned and Isabel are isolated from others unexpectedly, do they actually address their relationship.

This stagnation makes the novel difficult, watching Ned and Isabel stay in a relationship that is bad for them both for too long. Neither character is particularly likable, even though their situation is sympathetic.

This novel is a quiet read; even the desperation of the characters is muted into complacency. Isabel and Ned present such a tragic marriage that all other relationships seem prosperous by comparison. It is this comparison, though, the couple's interaction with other people, that defines their development and the novel. Christine Schutt makes the breakdown sound lovely in its detached tragedy.

bookreviews

Mona Moraru is a writer and editor living in East Liberty (monamoraru@sbcglobal.net).


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