By Susan Segal.
New York: Berkley Books, 2001
ISBN # 0-425-18997.
341 pages.

By Bob Corbett
May 2005

Eve Miller is convalescing in a Sydney, Australia hospital. Her sail boat has been rammed and destroyed in an accident, her husband and two young children are dead.

We learn all this very slowly given author Susan Segal’s choice of first person narrative, but we do get the strong sense that Eve’s physical problems pale in comparison with the difficulty she is having coping with this mind-boggling tragedy.

Isabel Stein, an aging American opera star is in town for a concert and comes to visit Eve, inviting her to come to her remote cottage outside New York City to convalesce

Thus begins the carefully crafted and told tale of tragedy and mystery. I think one of the major triumphs of Segal’s novel is her amazing ability to create for the reader a believable sense of FEELING what Eve Miller is going through, and living that sense of tragedy with her. Eve is not feeling sorry for herself. She’s not there yet and perhaps will never be. Rather, Segal creates the sensation of someone sort of floating in a room, weightless and not comprehending how she got there.

I was especially taken with how Segal constructed the dichotomy between Eve’s “condition” and the outside world’s perception in relation to the physical versuses mental suffering.

In the early part of the novel when Eve is in the first stages of recovery from a broken back as well as the weight of the loss of her family, everyone is “there” so to speak, to her tragedy and suffering. Not only is the hospital staff overwhelming her with care, but journalists crowd the waiting room and the world at large follows this story on its front pages and daily TV.

After a few weeks Eve gains some freedom of movement, a bit of alleviation of constant physical pain from her back, while at the same time the difficulty of the mental hardship in dealing with her loss intensifies.

The world is losing interest. The story’s been told, all the interesting gory details revealed and Eve’s walking. She’s “well” again; time to get on with things.

Susan Segal’s ability to paint this dichotomy between Eve’s real condition and the world’s perception of her, and the emphasis on how little her physical condition reveals anything of her inner state, is descriptive writing at its best. Once again, we are not just given the facts of Eve’s situation, we are made to feel the intensity of her disjunction.

In many ways these early introductory pages where we learn all this are merely a prologue to the real novel. The central story begins when Eve returns to the U.S. and Isabel sets her up in the guest house.

Eve has retreated into silence, gathering and squirreling away as many prescription medicines as she can a hold of get to ward off the mental pain and to have a safety stash of lethal tools in case she decides she just can’t go on.

Noah, a young composer and lover of Isabel, thirty years her junior, is living in the main house. Isabel and Leo, her suspecting and jealous husband, often come up from the city to check on the progress of Noah’s opera and Eve’s health.

Isabel is in a crisis with her voice, and her career is on the ropes. Noah plays a important roll in the fight for her self-esteem (thus Noah as lover) and a last hope for her sagging career (thus Noah as composer).

But where does Eve fit in? Is Isabel’s interest truly humanitarian or it there an ulterior motive? This tragedy/disaster novel takes a more populist swing toward a low-key mystery, not one with heavies and murders and all, but more quiet self-interested manipulations, betrayals and plain out confusion in interpersonal relations. The transition is well-done and within a few pages we are aware that the shift has been made and a new novel in underway.

There is yet a third very clever thing going on in this novel. Isabel and Leo set Eve up with a publisher who wants her to write her own story, the story of how her husband’s life dream was to take off for a number of years to live on a sail boat; how Eve somewhat begrudgingly agrees and how they set off with two pre-teens to fulfill Charlie’s dream.

Eventually Eve decides to at least write this book for herself. And, in an even further clever device, Eve’s writing is presented in the book in the cursive writing of her notebook as she finally faces the whole history of their sail boat adventure and tragedy. This gets her to do what no therapist had been able to do –to look at this hostory. Author Segal, with this device, gets to slip in a third story, the built up to and the accident itself. Very nicely conceived, but very busy.

There is an exchange between Eve and Isabel about how her writing is progressing, which Isabel has been rather subtly and insistently pushing:

Isabel stops again, her expression more pitying than shocked. She speaks quietly. “I can’t begin to imagine what is in you and it’s presumptuous of me to try.” This seems to me a very kind thing to say and I bite my lip and walk on. “This is another reason why I hope you do write a book,” Isabel’s voice floats to me from behind. “So that you can share what this feels like with others, perhaps help those who’ve been I through something similar.”

Now I stop. “Oh, really,” I say, turning back to her. “So what you’re saying is that I am somehow obligated by virtue of my circumstances to do something for the world’s edification.” I am clenching my fist again.

Isabel moves to catch up to me. She puts a gloved hand on my arm. “Of course not, Eve, that’s the last thing I mean.”

The character of Noah is sort of that of a straight-man. He’s a self-centered, ambitious, talented composer, out of his depth in dealing with the wiles of Isabel, and profoundly attracted by the attention she’s paying him. But he’s also a near-kid with some genuine sympathy for Eve’s situation, and ever so slightly falling in love with her.

One day in a bar of the small village where they go for groceries and such, as Eve, who has added alcohol to her escape tools, is downing her martinis, Noah prods her to articulate more about what life is like for her now. I especially liked the answer Segal gives to Eve since it reveals the uniqueness of Eve’s inner agonies. Noah has been pressing here to think of her future, and what is she thinking of it? Eve replies:

Then I speak in that unbidden, spontaneous voice that has been coming out of me lately: “Remember the first time you smelled a skunk?”

He looks at me quizzically. “I guess so. I mean yes, I do actually. I was camping. It was foul.”

“Do you remember how up to that moment, if you thought about it, you thought that a skunk would probably smell like all the worst smells you could imagine—excrement, garbage and body odor, maybe, all rolled into one? And how surprising it was to smell the real thing—which was entirely new, unlike any odor you’d experienced before? How completely off guard it took you.

“Yes.” He nods vigorously. “Exactly.”

“That’s what this life feels like to me. If I could have predicted how it would feel now, I would have drawn on all the tragedies I’ve ever experienced, like my father’s death and my grandparents’. Our first dog getting hit by a car. I would have assumed I would feel what I felt then, only more of it. I would have thought there’d he a context, I guess. But this is like a . . . a new planet, a new universe. This is skunk smell. So I don’t worry about what I’ll do for money if it runs out—I do what people ask me to because it seems to matter to them. I’m trying to write because my mother and Isabel and Leo and this agent all think that’s a good idea. Isabel says stuff about helping others by ‘sharing my pain’ and a lot of the letters I’ve looked at talk about God, about faith. Almost everyone has an idea of what it takes to cope. But I’ll tell you something, Noah, there’s only one way to get through this, at least for me, and that is to get through the second that just passed and the one we’re in right now and the one coming up. Each second is another one you’ve survived and that’s how you keep yourself walking the earth.”

Things get complex as Eve begins to slowly come out of her silence and retreat by falling in love with Noah, who seems to be in love with Isabel, who is rather bullied by her husband, Leo. Yep, things get complex.

Structurally even more is going on. There was the prologue, now this mystery-love-passion tale, then Eve’s writing the story of her experiences, but all of this takes place within the milieu of opera.

Segal’s position is that opera is the form of art wherein the “big emotions” of life are played out. I think this sentiment is correct, but the connection to the novel is rather tenuous – although Eve becomes an opera nut under Isabel’s prodding and Noah’s instruction. Perhaps that opera touch makes the novel a bit “too busy,” but clearly it is important to Sega’s overall crafting of her tale.

I am going to skip any further details of the complex inter-personal stuff that goes on – it is the heart of the bulk of the novel and suspenseful to the max, with one major surprise cropping up, which I won’t mention at all.

Despite the weight of page numbers in favor of the opera menagerie, in the end I think the most powerful story is that of Eve’s recovery. The development of her recovery is done is a way that makes marvelous reading, yet is noticeably slow. I like this a great deal since it matches the reality of Eve’s recovery itself, yet is satisfying from a literary standpoint as well. Very fine writing for that theme.

Segal made this all so real to me I was tempted to go to Google and look to see if this story is based in a true story. But I never went. As Eve begins to write her book, telling the full details, I realized what a gripping piece of non-fiction that book would have been.

I liked this novel a great deal. My guess is that most critics might find it too busy, too many different things and strategies going on in one book, perhaps an attempted tour-de-force of tools and tactics of an author trying too hard. But the power, development and profound emotion in the story of Eve’s mental journey was, for me, the saving grace.

It is a delightful read.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett