By Cree LeFavour
Call this a meta review. I invite you into my paralysis and dismay. Here we have a novel that we could not by any stretch of the imagination call a bad book. It is also not, in my terms — terms I’m coming to mistrust — a good book.
Cree LeFavour has produced an astonishing number of cookbooks, and she has a wonderful name. Though she’s also written a well-regarded memoir, “Lights On, Rats Out,” about her struggles with self-harm and her crush on her psychiatrist, “Private Means” is a first novel, which as a rule one cuts slack. And at this wretched historical juncture, I’m loath to make anyone’s day worse.
On the other hand, this is not a novel that I would recommend to friends or will remember a year from now. As my shelves are groaning, the proof will probably land in recycling. I know. Brutal. And maybe unfair.
Let’s back up, because plot summary — which I detest writing, and equally detest reading in reviews by other people who probably detested writing it, too — is an obligation of our form.
At 51, Alice has been a stay-at-home mother ever since pregnancy derailed her fledgling career as a biophysicist. Her husband, Peter, is a psychiatrist, and they live on the Upper West Side. Their twin daughters have left for college in California. Already desolated by the empty nest, Alice is also distraught about their dog, Maebelle, a tiny dachshund-Chihuahua mutt who escaped in Riverside Park. Alice has plastered the whole neighborhood with “Lost Dog” fliers. Peter resents his wife’s fervid attachment to Maebelle and merely humors her grief.
The novel takes place over a summer. Visiting friends and family in the Hamptons, Vermont and Cape Cod, the spouses wear the strains of their marriage on their sleeves. Alice has an exhilarating one-night stand with a dashing fellow from a lost-dog support group, and her lover coincidentally becomes Peter’s patient. Peter develops an unprofessional fixation on another patient, a sexy younger woman who fancies him back. (LeFavour having written only the two non-cookbooks, their both involving dalliances between women and their psychiatrists seems a tad impoverished.)
Infidelity within a sagging middle-aged marriage is a classic topic for fiction, including “Madame Bovary” and “Anna Karenina.” Yet maybe the number of novels that have taken on this timeless material sets the bar high. Maybe our author needs to make a contribution.
Or must she? Is it not sufficient to pass a reader’s time agreeably enough, and to tell a proficiently executed story with an age-old theme and an updated setting? I don’t know. You tell me.
As for the writing, there’s not much wrong with it. That is, I haven’t drawn any squiggly lines in the margins to indicate which passages are horrific. No passages are horrific. Yet I also underscored too few sentences in admiration. Now, here’s one: “He periodically swore to himself he’d stop looking at his phone when she was speaking, but there was vitality and excitement in the warm little device.” That’s a nice line, and it rings true. Ditto, “Alice was practiced at appearances. Being a parent did that to you.” Excellent. A pigeon’s strut “purposeful as car salesmen”: delightful. There just weren’t quite enough of those nice lines, and I looked hard.
I could have used less characterization-by-product, a cheap shortcut of the 1980s: “She eyed the sole male member of the group, assessing the French cuffs of his Charvet shirt” or “All she could do was assess the Pucci purse” and “Thierry Rabotin wedges.” The characters themselves feel slight. I sense I’ve met them before, and not in real life, but in other novels of this type. Alice’s study of starling flocks seems tacked on to make her interesting, and I was too conscious of authorial research on the bird stuff; I could almost hear tapping in the background, as “flock dynamics” was entered into a Google search field. But I may be too aware of the mechanics of writing a novel, and the fabulous word “murmuration” is a keeper.
I simply wanted to let you in on a commonplace conundrum for critics: what to say about a book that isn’t hurting anybody and is competently executed, but without whose publication the universe would be exactly the same. I’d probably call “Private Means” middlebrow, except that in our newly egalitarian cultural landscape we spurn terminology that locates a work within a hierarchy of the high and low.
It’s possible that I expect too much of novels, and I worry that lockdown has made a grumpy, impatient reviewer even grumpier and more impatient. I can’t bear critics who slate a work because it isn’t the book they’d have written themselves, and nothing in the back copy suggests that LeFavour wants to change the world.
Novels like this already emit an aura of innocence, as a hard curtain has dropped between pre- and post-Covid-19. Oh, for the days we worried only about an unfulfilling marriage — though homebound spouses stuck in one have discovered just how unfulfilling their relationships really are. One aspect of “Private Means” does feel modern: It contains a single sex scene between different people. The rest, and there are several, are all scenes of masturbation. That ratio seems about right. All told, to survive this chilling era, we’ll vary widely on whether we select such perfectly pleasant, comfortingly familiar fiction for distraction or prefer something meatier. Your choice.