The Kept Man by first-time novelist Jami Attenberg is published tomorrow, but I was lucky enough to read it before its release date. I think it was the opening line -- "I have been waiting for my husband to die for six years" -- that intrigued me most, quickly followed by the setting (New York -- Williamsburg and Brooklyn, to be precise).
The story is about a woman, Jarvis Miller, married to a highly successful artist, who, one day, falls off a ladder in his studio, bumps his head and ends up in a coma. Jarvis spends the next six years in limbo, married to a man who is no longer the man she married but is still faithfully devoted to him.
But one day, when her washing machine breaks down, she is forced to use the local laundromat, where she meets -- and befriends -- three attractive men who turn out to be house husbands. For the first time since her husband's accident, Jarvis gets a taste for the real world, where the possibility for new relationships and new experiences makes her feel alive again. It is only when she discovers some of her husband's secrets -- in the form of three mysterious collections of photographs -- that Jarvis feels it is time for her to let go of the past and embrace the future...
For a first-time novelist, The Kept Man represents an accomplished piece of work. Jarvis Miller is an amazingly well-rounded and believable character; flawed but willing to admit her flaws; lonely but not clingy; frightened yet brave. I found her incredibly tough but likable, if a little edgy and slightly needy.
The same cannot really be said of the narrative. Yes, the prose style is strong and confident. Yes, the characters are believable. Yes, the dialogue rings true. Yes, the setting is vivid and feels very real. But the story arc -- the plot -- seems as if it's holding back the punches, as if there's a whole host of back story you have to wade through first before you can understand Jarvis's sudden epiphany.
My point is this: we know Jarvis has experienced something traumatic and that the love for her husband cannot be doubted, but her reason for moving on and letting him go takes far too long to arrive -- about one-third of the book, to be precise. I think the narrative drive -- or the reason for the reader to keep turning the pages -- could have been stronger, by posing a question in the reader's mind up front. All it would have taken is a line or two in the first chapter indicating that Jarvis has reason to doubt her marriage, that she has evidence to back it up, and the seed of suspense would have been planted. But instead, I found myself reading without understanding the point of the story. I kept thinking, so what?
But that's not to say that this book isn't a great one. It is saved by a wonderful cast of characters, Attenberg's prose style (her attention to detail is superb) and a satisfying conclusion. The Kept Man is an entertaining read that explores what it is to love and be loved, how to move on when the past has such a grip on who you are, and why it's important to experience the world rather than cut yourself off from it. I await Attenberg's next book with much anticipation...