In the third act of This Bright River, Patrick Somerville’s enjoyable but uneven second novel, the leading lady tells the main character: “’Maybe you should stop mumbling through the world. Or complaining about privilege. I feel like you may not quite understand how unbearable a trait that is.’” She should’ve spoken up three hundred pages earlier.
Patrick Somerville is a writer of rare talent, and he’s especially gifted with an ear for lively dialogue and a pitch-perfect sense of humor that adds energy to his fiction without capsizing it into farce. His most recent story collection, The Universe in Miniature in Miniaturewas the funniest, most charming book I read in 2010. But even a great writer can turn out a bad novel, and through the first fifty pages, that’s what I feared This Bright River would be. Luckily, I was wrong.
Ben Hanson, that sometimes unbearable main character, begins the novel in the midst of the world’s most unsympathetic existential crisis. He’s barely thirty, but he’s already blown through a million-dollar trust and spent the past two years in “pansy prison” after a drunken mistake. He resents his rich family, but he still accepts when they offer him a cushy job looking after a dead uncle’s house until it can be sold. To do so, he’ll have to go back to the small Wisconsin town where he grew up.
Thankfully, Somerville steers away from the mopey quarterlife-crisis novel that this premise suggests, and instead uses the homecoming theme as the foundation of a pulse-pounding quasi-thriller about dark pasts and dangerous secrets.
Thankfully, too, most of Somerville’s non-Ben characters are delightful, even the ancillary ones. The realtor assigned to sell the dead uncle’s house brings vivacity and glee to the goings on. There’s also an old high school buddy who has a five-year-old daughter, and the two of them might as well be a comedy duo. When they go to an art show with Ben, this conversation ensues, about an undescribed painting:
“That reminds me of the time I took seventeen hits of acid.”
“It’s a little out-there.”
“What am I looking at? Am I looking at Africa?”
“I couldn’t tell you. Although actually—” I turned my head. “Maybe.”
“I think I’m looking at a big fucked-up map of Africa.”
Ben’s family—equal parts damaged and aggressively hilarious—hogs the spotlight in the second act, entertainingly sketching out the feel of Ben’s privileged upbringing. In one conversation, Ben’s mother, trying to prove that a small town can be just as weird and distasteful as a big city, brings up a story about a “’Burlington Coat Factory that was using dog pelts to make their coats.’” Ben’s pro-corporate father responds, “’That was a complicated story involving fur contamination overseas… That’s not fair.’”
(Somerville so excels at writing this charming, character-stuffed dialogue that it feels mystifying and disappointing when he sometimes uses IM conversations or email exchanges—like watching a home run hitter step up to bat with a pitching wedge in his hands.)
Then, of course, there’s Lauren, the serious leading lady who calls Ben’s complaining unbearable. Somerville gives over about a third of the book to Lauren’s perspective. Her life has been the polar opposite of Ben’s, and she invites as much sympathy as Ben does eye-rolling.
Lauren’s mother took her and her brother away from their abusive father in the middle of the night. Though she grew up poor, she worked her way through medical school on pure determination, and then went to Africa with a Doctors Without Borders-type outfit. There, and afterward, she went through trials she doesn’t like to talk about—but Ben’s high school buddy gives us the gist: “’She had some crazy husband go psycho on her.’” As a result, she’s washed back up in Wisconsin, interning for the local veterinarian while she gets the necessary degrees to work on animals instead of people.
As Ben and Lauren reconnect, Ben’s search for his dead uncle’s secret converges with Lauren’s attempted escape from her traumatic past… at least geographically. In terms of tone, Lauren’s action-packed storyline, verging on melodrama, slightly grates against Ben’s, which is a low-stakes cerebral mystery. The obvious contrast between their childhoods, under- and overprivileged, also never gets smoothly integrated into this puzzle.
Ben, as it turns out, has a great talent for puzzle-making. A subplot involves him contributing to a computer game from his jail cell, but when he sends in the central puzzle, he forgets to include the ancillary detail that provides the key to the solution. This Bright River, in a lot of ways, feels like Somerville forgot to include the detail that would make these finely crafted pieces fit neatly together.
[Note: after I'd written this review, I came across this interview, in which Somerville seems to indicate that the puzzle in the book does indeed provide a clue as to the plot, a clue that Somerville claims is tangential to enjoyment of the novel. I didn't solve the puzzle, but I think its answer, or lack thereof, leaves a bigger hole than he intended.]
Fortunately, Somerville’s great sense of humor comes through in spades. He can dash off pages-long passages of such winning and enthusiastic delight that you forgive him happily for the missteps of the larger structure. In The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, this sense of humor was the lead actor, top-billed in neon letters. In This Bright River, it’s been relegated to a supporting role, but it still steals the show.