Wisconsin writer Jane Hamilton has an admitted penchant for doom-and-gloom subjects: the drowning of a child, adultery and traumatic brain injury have all been major plot points in her novels.
Yet Hamilton also possesses a sharp wit, which she allows free rein in her sixth book, Laura Rider's Masterpiece, out this week from Grand Central Publishing.
Even the book's cover art is a tip-off to this new side of Hamilton; the images are culled from pulp novels of the 1950s. A woman in clamdiggers and Keds sits pensively at a typewriter while, behind her, a handsome lug scoops up an enraptured and bosomy woman.
This campy scene hints at the triangle that emerges in the book, as the title character's husband embarks on a steamy romance with brainy public radio host Jenna Faroli (who resembles Wisconsin Public Radio's Jean Feraca). Yet the affair is, to a large extent, of Laura Rider's own making.
Laura, who has aspirations of becoming a popular romance novelist despite little experience with either writing or reading, pens heartfelt emails from her husband's account to the radio host after the husband and host have a chance meeting. While she helps to set events in motion as a bizarre form of research for her book, Laura ultimately finds things whirling out of control - yet her reaction is not what most readers would expect.
While Hamilton described her latest book as "frothy" and "a little puff" in an interview with Publishers Weekly, readers shouldn't expect a departure from the psychological acuity of her earlier work. In fact, what makes this occasionally raunchy novel such fun is its perfect fusion of arch satire and smart, penetrating writing.
Consider how Hamilton paints a remarkably full portrait of a minor character, a colleague of the radio host, in a single sentence: "Enormous, bearded Pete, who was devoted to Jenna, who hadn't had a girlfriend in a decade, who was a ham-radio and news junkie, who ate every single meal at Subway."
Yet in Laura Rider's Masterpiece, set in the fictional hamlet of Hartley, Wis., characters' appearances can be deceiving. While Jenna is known for her intellect and warm, wise on-air persona, she turns out to be a carnal creature as well. Husband Charlie Rider, believed by many in Hartley to be gay due to his androgynous manner, has a relentless heterosexual sex drive. And Laura, the force behind the successful Prairie Wind Farm (which she runs with Charlie), has aspirations to leave behind her insular small town for literary fame. She's a curious mix of naveté and ambition.
Sharply drawn characters, a snappy pace and a tense conclusion make Laura Rider's Masterpiece well worth reading. It's also a commentary on how words can get us into trouble, and how those who seek to make a living with the written word often take that skill for granted.