Prosperous Friends

  • Christine Schutt
  • Grove Press
  • 205 pp.

This spare and “gossamer” novel offers an engaging look at the nature of marriage and the challenge of getting it right.

Reviewed by Harriet Douty Dwinell

Who would predict that the marriage between Isabel Stark and Ned Bourne would founder? A Golden Couple with newly minted Columbia MFAs, the Bournes are in London when the novel begins, living off Ned’s handsome fellowship. Not only is Ned considered the best writer in the class, but also he is “too handsome.” Isabel herself is lovely, with “bark-brown hair and eyes, eyes wide apart, pale face.” Yet their orientation to the world differs widely. Isabel “always expected grotesque but not so Ned, no. Ned Bourne was walking into the world with his arms open.” And each holds a secret. Ned longs for Phoebe, who had rejected him because he was not rich enough. Isabel’s secret, “ugly as a cyst was ugly,” is more obscure: that the “elixir of betrayal was exciting.”

Christine Schutt narrates the downward spiral of the Bourne marriage in a series of vignettes that haunt the reader with the immediacy and ambiguity of a dream. Even though the story takes place over a two-year period a decade ago,  scenes and images from other times and other places well up like dots that   Christine Schutt leaves to the reader to connect, making Prosperous Friends a challenge to read. The images are gossamers beyond our cognition so that we feel rather than comprehend what is transpiring. In her earlier work — two collections of short stories and two award-nominated novels  Schutt is most praised for such qualities as the “adamantine beauty” of her language. And it is true that the imagery in Prosperous Friends, like that in poetry, offers new insights with each reading.

In England, problems in the marriage surface immediately. Isabel seems frigid; she might be lesbian. Ned desperately searches for ways to turn her on. He tries new postures and introduces notes of fantasy, selecting a person from a theater audience or pharmacy queue for Isabel to imagine as a sex partner. When Isabel experiments on her own, going home with a woman she met at a museum — just curious, she says — Ned is irate. There are parties with old college friends and edgy new ones. Time frames blur. It is difficult to put your finger on what has transpired, only that as time goes on a sense of unhappiness emerges from beneath the early promise. Isabel and Ned could be the young couple in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” or characters in any of the later novels of Virginia Woolf.

Unexpectedly pregnant, Isabel has an abortion, an action that will hover over a book haunted by issues of mothers and mothering. The night of the abortion, Ned goes off to a friend’s book party, returning home late and drunk, having learned that Phoebe is engaged. Later, Isabel begins to take on hopeless projects, trying to mother the “pink knob” of an abandoned baby mouse and a blind shih tzu.

Back in Manhattan, still trendy in a White Street loft but fending off panic brought on by fears of diminished expectations, Ned flinches when his agent pushes back new material. “[A] second book of stories is not a good idea. Make it a memoir.” Like much in Schutt’s novel, the reader has to intuit from scenes such as this what has previously happened, in this case, that an earlier collection of Ned’s stories has been published. Ned picks up again with the now-married Phoebe. Isabel, with little professional success to buoy her self-esteem, is flattered by the attentions of Clive Harris, an artist of renown with a full head of gleaming white hair, “a ravaged carp, practiced in taking advantage of the stunned or wounded.”

Clive has invited Isabel to stay at the guesthouse adjacent to his home on the Maine Coast, which he shares with his second wife, Dinah, a poet of note. Implicit in this offer is that Clive will paint Isabel naked and receive sexual favors; Isabel will have the opportunity to write apart from Ned. But Isabel then invites Ned, thus giving us an opportunity to observe, side by side, two married couples, for Prosperous Friends is above all a novel about marriage. At first glance, few would consider the Harris marriage ideal. Dinah considers her work merely “[p]atchwork poems while she waited for Clive,” her mornings begun by jiggering vodka into her juice in order to endure the succession of young things Clive brings into their lives. Yet by the end of the Bournes’ stay, the true state of the two marriages is revealed.

“There may be cures to loneliness, but marriage is not one of them,” thinks Dinah. These words come as she regards Ned and Isabel, but they also describe Dinah’s deep sorrow at not having children and her love of Sally, Clive’s daughter by his first marriage, scorned by Clive because she is large, 40, a recovering alcoholic, depressive and always short of money. At Dinah’s invitation, Sally visits the Maine complex and the three women — Dinah, Sally and Isabel — bond. That evening, Sally and Isabel attend an outdoor concert of African-American choral music. Everyone is there — fat and skinny; young and old; black and white; able bodied and handicapped — the music full of “odd notes resolving.”

Those “odd notes resolving” do not end Prosperous Friends. A prologue and epilogue reset the narrative in a manner that made me take in my breath. At the same time they provide another marriage for consideration. Ed and Aura Kyle, proprietors of the Wax Hill B&B, could not be further removed from the surface glamour of the Bournes, yet they put the Bournes’ sad tale into perspective within the human comedy. The Bournes had stayed at the Wax Hill B&B en route to the Maine guesthouse. Years later the Bournes take their place among the ghosts of other guests stacked up in the memories of the Kyles, proprietors of an ordinary B&B somewhere along a highway in Maine.

Prosperous Friends is not a novel for people who crave certainty. I found it confusing and frustrating until I got my sea legs. After that, I still found it confusing but no longer frustrating. I could hardly put it down, the spare novel as much of a page turner as any thick thriller, a book that yields new insights into character and relationships the more you poke your nose into it.

Harriet Douty Dwinell, a Washington writer and editor, has written for magazines and newspapers such as The New Republic, Family Circle, The Washingtonian and The Washington Post. She has completed a memoir of her transformational year at Battle Abbey, a girls boarding school housed in the abbey built by William the Conqueror after his victory in the Battle of Hastings.