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Off Course: A Novel Hardcover – April 1, 2014
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This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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Cressida Hartley, struggling with finishing her doctoral dissertation and a general sense of being unmoored, decamps to her family’s California mountain cabin in Huneven’s latest, an understated yet deeply compelling novel. It is the Reagan era, and 28-year-old Cress seeks shelter from the varied trip wires of academia, relationships, and the bone-deep slices to the psyche dealt by family. Shaped by her father’s Depression-baby parsimony and her mother’s warden-like watchfulness over her two daughters during their impressionable teen years, Cress lets loose on the mountain as she discovers lovers, friends, and the long future shadows cast by careless decisions made in an instant. Subconsciously in search of “the nearly unbearable sweetness of being known and adored,” she lets her affections travel from an exuberant man whose failing is to adore every woman who crosses his path to a married father of two whose very existence will permanently alter her sense of self. Seemingly quiet and unexciting at first glance, the story and the resonant cast of characters soon barrel through with their deeply human nuances, all communicated in Huneven’s captivating language. An utterly absorbing read. --Julie Trevelyan
“Skillful and perceptive” ―The New York Times Book Review
“Huneven's touch is sure, and her protagonist is simultaneously sympathetic and maddening. The landscape descriptions are erotic, and the erotic scenes have near-hallucinatory power.” ―The New Yorker
“Huneven has a sharp facility with language that registers both the horror of how low Cress lets herself sink and the mundanity of it all.” ―The Boston Globe
“Huneven, a writer of great empathy and emotional precision, doesn't resort to cheap moralizing here. Such easy lessons would give this gracefully written novel the harsh sting of a cheap, cautionary tale. Instead, she lets her characters play out their scenarios like real adults must--weighing the pleasures of the present against their own future guilt...” ―The Los Angeles Times
“[Huneven's] prose exudes such a rumpled, sensuous vibe, it practically gives you bedhead.” ―Los Angeles Magazine
“Michelle Huneven delivers an enthralling tale of impulsive decisions, impossible love, and catastrophic consequences.” ―Bustle
“The greatest triumph of Off Course lies in Huneven's remarkable ability to create a mood, and to bring the reader fully inside it.” ―The Huffington Post
“Sensitive, reflective and uncomfortably true to life, with a wonderfully rich cast of supporting characters.” ―Kirkus (starred review)
“If I had to highlight just one of Huneven's many abundant talents, it would be this: She makes you forget that the people you're reading about don't actually exist. You feel as if you were reading about your own family and friends… Michelle Huneven has produced a literary miracle.” ―PopMatters
Top customer reviews
I like the way Hunevan adds animals (like the deer in Jamesland) and the way she interweaves 12-step work (Round Rock and Blame). Her characters always strike me as addicted to something in one way or another and on some protracted journey to some form of healing or redemption, however imperfect. I like imperfect characters and imperfect resolutions. Cress is a case in point. I found myself flip-flopping in my view of her, sometimes wanting Cress to get what she wanted but mostly hoping Huneven would not let her.
I recommend the book, but I recommend reading Huneven's books in chronological order.
The story and its many fine details exhibit her attentiveness to the minutia -- familiar or otherwise -- that make characters, settings and plots so real and engaging. Cressida Hartley is both exasperating and completely relatable in her struggles to find her footing outside her family dynamic, as well as define who and what she wants to be when she grows up. The many entertaining distractions of her mountain retreat help drive her deeper into that discovery process, while simultaneously pulling her away from what it is she set out to do, much to the frustration of controlling parents and disapproving friends and family who don't quite get this chapter of her life.
Though swiftly paced and richly engrossing, there was some disappointment in both the trajectory of the narrative and the way which it all wrapped up. In some ways the book could be subtitled, "The Anatomy of an Affair," as the plot pulls us through months -- years -- of Cressida's unlikely relationship with a local man deeply embedded in his community and his unhappy but seemingly immutable marriage.
There are all the standard "affair" plot points: passionate but healing sexual encounters; dates not kept, lonely holidays, distraught wives, disapproval from community busy-bodies, recurring disappointments, cyclical break-ups and rapprochements, and the never-ending, misguided, and wearily familiar expectation of a happy ending with her clearly elusive lover. From mid-story to nearly the end, we take that ride with Cressida, observing as she sacrifices goals, principles, jobs, friends, even her good sense, just to FEEL that heady, elemental attachment to a man who is -- at least to this reader -- a quizzically clumsy match. This part of the plot felt dated and by-the-book, to the point that I almost felt I was reading something that was actually written in the 1980s... there was nothing particularly fresh or revelatory on the subject of "having affairs with married men," which, for me, was a little disappointing, given the talent and depth of this writer.
And it would have all been acceptable had the story taken us to someplace empowering and transformational for Cressida. As it was, the denouement of the book felt a bit like a toss-off; every decision made post-affair -- from her marriage to her job to her life in general -- was presented as inconsequential in its narrative presentation, as if all the meaning and merit of her life after the mountain paled in comparison to the heat and flare of that one passionate affair. If that's what the author intended to convey, she succeeded. But I closed the book feeling a bit let-down, as if a really good story had been blunted by a flat, uninspired conclusion.
Still... I enjoyed the read for what it was. If nothing else, it's a beautifully written if overly familiar cautionary tale on the folly of infidelity.