Elizabeth Brundage is a wonderful storyteller who digs into those secret little corners of lives and personalities and lays bare the thoughts and emotions that reside therein. You know the ones of which I’m speaking; I think we all lay awake at night at some point in our lives and think, Am I the only one who feels like this? Brundage not only exposes these but also sets them free. The result is a wild ride of first impression.
A STRANGER LIKE YOU, Brundage’s latest novel, introduces readers to Hugh Waters, an underwriter for an east coast insurance company --- his “marking time” job, as we are told early on --- whose lifetime dream is accomplished when the rights to a screenplay he has labored over are purchased by Gladiator Films. But his joy is yanked out from under him when the executive who bought his story suddenly dies and is replaced by Hedda Chase, an Ivy League fireball who has absolutely no interest in his script. Her rejection letter is neither subtle nor tactful in its criticism. Hugh does what many of us in similar situations have considered doing (however fleetingly or momentarily): he researches Hedda’s background, abandons his wife and job, and flies to L.A. to confront her at her home, after nosing around her peripherally for a bit. His intent is to show her that his script, which she dismissed as not being believable, is very credible indeed.
All of this takes place within the first several pages of the book, which also reveal to the reader that Hugh’s behavior represents more than an impulsive act. The boy is not right, to put it mildly. We’re never quite sure whether the rejection of the script functions as a tipping point for his insanity or as an excuse to let go. And in the end, it may not even matter. Yet this is only where A STRANGER LIKE YOU begins. We also get to know Hedda as the novel progresses, observing her in a series of events that take her up to her confrontation with Hugh. She uses --- and is used by --- a film director who she takes as a lover; makes some careers and ruins others; and is very good at what she does, regardless of her intent. Yet she is markedly miserable in her life, which is everything that she wanted yet nothing like what she hoped it would be.
This is true of everyone we encounter here --- from Tom, the aforementioned film director, to a young homeless woman who has crammed a life of Dickensian horror into a few short years, to a physically and mentally wounded Iraqi war veteran who, while flawed, is one of the few characters with anything that remotely resembles a moral compass. Brundage spins all of these individuals against each other, ever so briefly in some cases but with great and life-changing effect in all, before bringing them together in one final and extended denouement. I can’t tell you what happens at the end, other than to say that Brundage, with great and subtle flair, leaves all of the protagonists and antagonists with one thing in common --- something quite unexpected when one considers what has gone before.
Brundage is not exactly known for her noir fiction, yet A STRANGER LIKE YOU so perfectly captures the modern vacuum of the soul of southern California that it is worth rereading this work just to take notes on how she does it. I was reminded by turns of John Barth, Raymond Chandler and Walker Percy, though the book is like nothing any of those gentlemen wrote. No, this one is all Brundage, all the time. And that makes the wait between her books worth it.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011