A Thousand Pardons
Some stories begin with a bang. And some begin with a roaring fireball of truth. Jonathan Dee's latest novel belongs in the latter camp, plopping you directly into one of the most ouch-it's-so-honest marriage-counseling sessions ever written. Each week, Ben and Helen Armstead pretend to go on a "date night" but really visit a therapist with a comforting long, gray braid and cozy carriage-house office. All those niceties are blow aside when silent, lethargic Ben suddenly admits, "I would like to wake up tomorrow next to someone who has no idea who I am. I would like to look out the window and not recognize anything. I would like to look in the f— mirror...and see other people." A few weeks later, with one truly stupid act, he burns down his life, losing his job, his family and, for a short while, his freedom. In a lesser writer's hands, this kind of destruction could be alienating, but Dee makes Ben not only human, but also compelling. Further, he expands the appeal and wisdom of the novel by dipping into the lives and perspectives of everyone involved—from Helen, who must relearn how to support herself, to Sara, the couple's adopted teenage daughter, to the family's dissolute and savage lawyer. What ties together all these characters is their individual and silent search for traction in their lives, for some kind of self-understanding. Even Hamilton Barth, a cheesy famous movie star who staggers drunkenly through the second half of the novel, tells himself that "at his core he was nobody and that his nobodyness felt like something unforgiveable." Add all this up, and what should result is a depressing book. Except it's too funny and too real and too astute. "I cannot be the only person who feels this way," Ben says. He isn't. And his way back to himself is the kind of inner struggle you'll wish were more outwardly visible in our society, so that we all could learn something from it.
— Leigh Newman