- Charles Dubow
- William Morrow
- 400 pp.
- Reviewed by Keith Donohue
- March 11, 2013
In this debut novel, wealth, youth and fabulousness are destroyed by momentary desire.
The story revolves around a couple blessed by good fortune and breeding. Harry Winslow is a kind of man’s man: a National Book Award-winning novelist, yes, but a two-fisted drinker as well, a graduate of Yale where he was a star hockey player, a former Marine who now flies a small plane for fun. His wife Maddy (Madeline) is a trust-fund beauty, athletic, down-to-earth, great cook. Their nine-year-old son Johnny had a heart condition as a baby, but now appears to be growing smartly. Now in their early 40s, they live a charmed life, summers in the Hamptons, a brownstone in Manhattan, a grant for Harry that will allow them to spend the fall in Rome. The very rich are different from you and me. They have better stuff.
Into this Eden comes Claire (we’re never given her last name, something Irish-sounding we’re told). A single, 26-year-old New Yorker, she is younger and sexier, with a voice like “silver bells.” Drawn to Harry and his way of life, she ultimately seduces him and sets the plot in motion.
Stories of adultery have a narrative arc and tension that are nearly irresistible. There’s the meet-cute scene, the early attraction, the art of flirting and the surrender to seduction. In Harry and Claire’s case, there’s the thrill of the new sexual adventure, the subterfuge and secret rendezvous, and the wife’s suspicions and discovery. It is the stuff of a hundred such love affairs, but done with such attention to detail, elegance and refinement that it almost seems less than sordid.
Dubow writes with a kind of urgency that grabs you by the pajamas and won’t let go. Indiscretion is a page-turner of high style, with an almost pornographic eye for the best in elegance and fashion and most of all food. To pick one at random, here is Harry about the roast chicken in Paris: “The skin is covered in crackling hot fat. The chicken is a Coucou de Rennes, which are the best in the world. They also have the best foie gras I’ve ever tasted. It comes from Aquitaine.” I had to look up all of that on the Internet, and he is right. One can but envy such conspicuous consumption so well told.
Some have compared Indiscretion with The Great Gatsby, and it is easy to see why such an error would be made. There’s the Long Island setting, the decadence and allure of great wealth, and the narrator of the whole affair: Walter Gervais, a childhood friend of Maddy’s and their neighbor in the Hamptons. But he is no Nick Carraway, just as Harry Winslow is no Gatsby. Where the narrator of The Great Gatsby was a middle-class Midwesterner with his nose pressed to the window of wealth, the narrator of Indiscretion is the richest person in a novel made up almost entirely of rich people.
Most importantly, however, is the curious choice Dubow has made with his narrator and point-of-view. Walter tells the story of Harry and Claire’s affair and the dangers to the Winslows’ marriage in the first person. This device actually detracts from the flow of the story. How would he know about the foie gras in a Paris restaurant, or the fairly explicit details of the couple’s most intimate moments? His answer, while not dissatisfying, is not wholly satisfying either. Walter recreates the inner story of these characters from Harry’s unfinished manuscript and from conversations with the three main protagonists and from his imagination. Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway has a more limited perspective, reporting primarily on those events that he has witnessed directly.
Toward the end of the book, Walter also becomes a more active participant in the story, taking on a far more dramatic role than Nick ever does in Gatsby. As Walter writes early on: “Why am I the narrator of this story? I am because it is the story of my life — and of the people I love most.” He is a puzzling character, offering at one point an elaborate and deliberately false ending that may strike some readers as unnecessarily cruel, and his telling of the tale might be the greater indiscretion.
There is a nod by a minor character, at one point, to the idea of hamartia — or the fatal error — from Greek tragedy, but it seems a bit of a stretch to liken an ordinary affair to such tragic heights. Indiscretion laments the fall from grace and the ruin of the idyll. It is a sad story well worth a read on an August beach or better yet, on a winter’s day whilst dreaming of the summer sun.
Keith Donohue is the author of The Stolen Child and two other novels.