Sunday, November 10, 2013

Claire Dewitt and the Bohemian Highway

Sara Gran
2013 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Reviewed by Carol
4 of 5 stars
“‘That’s wonderful,’ I said.
‘Do you really think so?’ Lydia said. ‘Do you really think it’s wonderful?’
Did I really think it was wonderful? Wonderful was probably an exaggeration. I thought it was fine. Maybe even good. I couldn’t say the last time I thought anything was exactly wonderful. This implied more joy than I may ever have felt. But that was what she wanted to hear.’”

Claire is a mess. A word of advice to those that allow her in their homes–keep your drugs locked up, as she’ll be in the medicine cabinet hunting for Valium and oxycodone as soon as your back is turned. You know Claire. I was friends with her in college. I’m not precisely sure if I love the character, or my memory of the Claire-like friend. Beautiful. Burning with intelligence. Supremely dysfunctional in an utterly honest way. Prone to exploiting and helping those around her in equal amounts.  Not with maliciousness, mind you; more an instinctual focus on meeting her own needs, her desperate attempt to fill the holes in her psyche. And yet, despite all those dysfunctional behaviors, it’s heartache for friends to walk away. (Come to think of it, I’m in a Claire-like relationship with a certain book site right now).

Set in San Francisco some time after Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Claire has set out her detective shingle in her usual ambivalent way, unloading much of her work on her new assistant–a former medieval history student who was strangely drawn to a certain detective how-to book he accidentally discovered in the library. One night, she is awakened by the police calling her; this time, they are hoping that she can offer solace to the wife of an old friend, Paul. Little does the officer know Paul and Claire were star-crossed lovers, and his death might just be the result of damage a decade in the making. The story ricochets between two main cases, the case of Paul’s murder (aka ‘The Case of the Kali Yuga’) and the long-ago case of Claire’s missing Chloe (‘The Case of the End of the World’), but like we already know from Jacques Stilette, Claire’s really solving the mystery of herself.

“But then I felt tense, and the moment turned yellow and eerie, like the moment when the clouds have gathered and the light turns before it starts to storm. Like in a movie when you see a couple looking so happy and alive, but you knew when you brought your ticket: This wasn’t a story about love. This was a story about murder.”

I picked up the book once, and after a chapter in, realized my schedule was too busy to fully commit to Claire (no allowing her near my medicine cabinet). Once I cleared a little space, I picked it up again and was rapidly re-impressed by Gran’s ability to weave a tale. Once again, she astounds me with her writing, particularly her ability to capture small explosions of emotion with direct, profound simplicity. 

When someone says, ‘oh, that detective book you guys like,’ referencing the book  D√©tection which gave shape and purpose to the teenage Claire’s life, the response is:
“This book we liked. Like this air we breathed, this sun that shone on us.”

Thankfully, the heartache of Claire’s past case and the destruction of the current one are leavened with Gran’s sly humor. Sometimes, it’s in Claire’s descriptions:
“He had on a worn bathrobe over pajama bottoms and a T-shirt and fake leather slippers that had seen better days, although I think it would be fair to say that none of their days had been exactly good.”

And sometimes, it’s the side cases, such as when Claire and her assistant take on a case of missing miniature horses:
“My theory was that the little fellow were running away to try to get some big boy genes back in the mix, or maybe committing suicide. I made a mental note to research equine suicides.”

One of the most sorrowful aspects of the book is Claire’s gradual implosion. Though she knows investigation won’t bring Paul back, she can’t help picking at the pieces of his life and their relationship. She ends up doing endless amounts of drugs in an attempt to mitigate the pain. It happens slowly, piecemeal, but one of the first signs is Claire’s exhaustion:

“Maybe that was all there was to life. One long case, only you kept switching roles. Detective, witness, client, suspect. Then one day I’d be the victim instead of the detective or the client and it would all be over. Then I’d finally have a fucking day off.”

Gran’s sophisticated layering of social commentary isn’t present at the same level as City of the Dead, despite the potential of San Francisco. The enormous dichotomy of the city– tech/hippies, billionaires/street-dwellers, society mavens/potheads–remains largely unexploited. Instead, analysis is more subdued, tossed into asides:
“Besides, she and Paul didn’t live so high on the hog. Other than their house in the Mission, which had cost about a billion dollars, they lived like everyone else, except they didn’t worry about money while they did it.”

As an aside, I enjoyed following Gran on Facebook before she deleted her account. Perhaps I conflated her with Claire, but she had a fascinating mix of posts: old Hollywood photos, art, random laughs, New York news and feminism.  One time, there was a post full of irritation, bemoaning the male gaze that evaluated all women by their ‘fuckability,’ which resonated with me for a number of reasons. It was no surprise then, to find Claire sharing her own bon mots on the concept of ‘pretty’:

“On the other hand, a pretty girl is always the object, never the subject. People think you’re dumb and treat you accordingly, which is sometimes helpful but always annoying. I figure once you hit thirty it’s diminishing returns on your investment anyway. Might as well move on and put your money into more useful skills.”

The time shifts between the two cases were done well, and I found myself equally invested in both stories. Both felt real: the teenagers looking for identity in the face of absent parents felt familiar; Claire’s current desperation and mourning felt painfully so. Unfortunately, the ending was less than satisfactory. There was a sudden group of short, choppy chapters, a kalediscope of fragments wrapping up a tale. And, could that be? A cliff-hanger ending?  Given Gran’s general writing style and her preference for stand-alone books, I am–like all the times I forgave my Claire-like friend–completely willing to blame an editor or a publisher. And buy the next book.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely, if you’ve read the first. It won’t work for everyone, but it is an unusual, profoundly heartbreaking tale.

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