Knopf, 304 pages, $25.95
It’s gospel in the publishing business that readers want light, enjoyable fare this time of year, and Very Nice, Marcy Dermansky’s fourth novel, fits the bill. With a story of sex and intrigue set amid rich people in a beautiful house with a picturesque swimming pool, it is, indeed, a good book to pack for your vacation. But maybe it’s more than that.
Set in roughly the present moment, the story focuses on Rachel, an undergraduate, who goes home to Connecticut for summer vacation. Her father has left her mother, Becca, a schoolteacher who has also just suffered the loss of her faithful dog, which might be the greater tragedy. Rachel has recently had a dalliance with her creative writing professor, Zahid, and by a strange turn of events he, too, ends up at the Connecticut home, where he falls under the spell not of his student but of her mother.
It’s to the author’s credit that this mother-daughter love triangle is considerably less icky than it sounds. Zahid is in crisis, struggling to write his new book, and finds himself drawn to Becca — and her wealth. “This was the kind of woman I needed in my life,” he tells us. “A beautiful woman with a big, beautiful house ... A woman who had been let down by another man. She would not have unrealistic expectations.” Yes, she’s rich, but this woman of a certain age is also an object of sexual desire. “Becca seemed to understand me. She was eighteen years older than I was, and this felt right to me. Our bodies felt right. She had a terrific body.”
The plot is nominally about whether Zahid and Becca will become lovers and how this will affect Rachel. But Very Nice contains many storylines and a whole cast of characters, almost like a stage farce: People race in and out of doors, nearly colliding and never quite realizing the part they play in the larger story. Each chapter has a different narrator: Becca, Rachel, and Zahid, as well as Becca’s estranged husband, Jonathan, and Khloe, a black lesbian business-school grad who works for him.
Each chapter moves the central story forward but is also a digression. We hear about Khloe’s romantic life, Zahid’s job hunt, and the saga of one especially dysfunctional family in town. Some of these sidesteps feel a little labored — Khloe’s storyline is the least interesting — but the brisk pacing and economical style are seductive and keep the reader’s attention.
As the pages go by, the novel begins to feel unreal. (This is not a complaint. Novels are unreal by definition.) The pool is almost a character, the way New York is in an Edith Wharton story. “The pool looked better than it ever had,” Dermansky describes. “The water sparkled, rays of light rippling across the sparkling blue water. We swam for half an hour.”
What will happen at this house in Connecticut, and the attendant themes of family, sex, and marriage, are conveyed in a distant, affectless way. This isn’t minimalism — not really. The narrative has the sound and feel of anecdote, or maybe more appropriately, fairy tale. Not in the sense that there’s anything magical happening but insofar as there’s a moral to the stories. I think the author means to delight us with a love triangle, then redirect our attention to the various subplots and digressions that allow her to ruminate on identity, art, violence, and our current politics.
“The girls had wanted a woman president,” Becca tells us of her students. “I educated the pink-cheeked boys who said they were happy about Trump. I had to set them straight, as carefully as possible, to avoid confrontations with parents.” The author is direct but mindful not to let moments like this overwhelm. She’s asking big questions but at the same time giving us the kind of book we’re told we want during the summer. While not profound, necessarily, this is a more serious book than it might seem at first glance. It’s like she’s served us a cupcake that turns out to be nutritious.
I won’t spoil the book’s conclusion, not because I dislike spoilers but because I’m in awe of it. Dermansky manages to resolve what ultimately becomes a pretty crazy plot, while keeping the novel’s aims opaque. It’s only on the final page that those become somewhat clearer.
And yet, Very Nice is not a text that reveals itself at the last minute as metafiction or parable, in the lazy manner of those “it was all just a dream” stories. It’s not a trick, with the reader as its patsy, and though very funny, it’s not a joke at the reader’s expense. OK, one spoiler: The last word of the book is “laugh.” I bet you will.