Lydia Millet's strange and lovely new novel, MAGNIFICENCE, opens as Susan, a middle-aged former teacher, and her daughter Casey arrive at the airport to meet Susan's husband Hal, due to return from Belize, where he's gone in search of Susan's employer, known only as T. Much to Susan and Casey's surprise, however, T emerges from the airplane alone, with the news that Hal has been murdered in a botched street robbery.
"As it turns out, Susan's grief has been following her far longer than the reader initially knows; the impulses behind her behavior provide, in the end, an abundance of sympathy and humanity that unfolds gradually but no less profoundly or magnificently."
Susan's first reaction is one of shock and grief, of course, but that's soon replaced by a rather different set of emotions, ones that in many ways guide the decisions she makes and the self-conception she holds through the rest of the novel. "Maybe it was her, maybe she had done it, made a victim of him in the same way, in a slasher movie, the woman of low morals was doomed from the start, the buxom blonde in tight clothes good for nothing but ogling and murdering, her future blank save for the pending role as punished dead harlot." Why should Susan blame herself in a very real way for a murder that took place thousands of miles away? Because, she rationalizes, Hal left for Belize not only because T had disappeared but also because he was devastated to discover firsthand Susan's extramarital affair, just the latest in a string of infidelities.The emotional rationale for Susan's serial adultery is only revealed much later in the book, but the effect it has on her self-worth guides much of the novel's focus and action.
Susan knows she wants to get out of the Los Angeles house she shared with Hal, but she's not sure where she wants to go. That is, until she discovers that she's been left, entirely unexpectedly, the house of a recently deceased uncle. Susan has hardly met the man and barely remembers his house (her only memory is a player piano that's no longer even there), but she views the windfall as a serendipitous chance for a fresh start. Well, "fresh" in a manner of speaking, given that Susan's new house is absolutely stuffed with taxidermy animals --- everything from local birds to the most exotic African and Asian big game. Most people might be squeamish about being around so much death, but Susan, for reasons that are only gradually understood, becomes quite fond of the dead animals, even using her newfound fortune to help preserve and repair them.
There's a lot of other things happening here, including Susan's ongoing and largely unfounded worries about Casey (who's confined to a wheelchair following a car accident), her perpetual and largely unsuccessful attempts to find sexual and romantic fulfillment, and her eventual willingness to open up her new house to some extremely unusual houseguests. The whimsy approaches absurdity at times, but it also mirrors the real-life disorientation and absurdity that accompanies periods of grief. As it turns out, Susan's grief has been following her far longer than the reader initially knows; the impulses behind her behavior provide, in the end, an abundance of sympathy and humanity that unfolds gradually but no less profoundly or magnificently.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 16, 2012
- Publication Date: November 5, 2012
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
- ISBN-10: 0393081702
- ISBN-13: 9780393081701