Straying is a portrait of a marriage gone stale; it’s also the story of a daughter struggling to understand her mother, and the story of an American woman in Ireland who finds–metaphorically, at least–that she can’t go home again. (Straying‘s protagonist, Alice, is at the heart of all three threads–she’s the cheating wife, the disappointing daughter, and the wander-lost American, respectively.) Nothing is new or exciting about that plot, but Molly McCloskey’s sharp prose style elevates the experience somewhat, especially in the first third of the book, which captures the staticky, on-edge feeling of being in love with the wrong person perfectly. Unfortunately, the decay of Alice’s marriage is nowhere as insightful or interesting as its beginning, and while I understand that that’s likely a conscious choice on McCloskey’s part, the latter two-thirds still make for dry, abrasive reading. Straying starts with a spark and plenty of tinder, but it never catches fire.
You can read my full review below.
Straying by Molly McCloskey
- publisher: Scribner Book Company (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
- publication date: February 20, 2018
- length: 224 pages
- cover price: $24.00
How do people do it, I used to wonder. Well, I learned. That sort of secret feels like an illness, the way the world slows to a crawl as though for your inspection. So much clarity and consequence–it was like enlightenment, it was like being in the truth, which is a funny thing to say about deceit.
—Straying, page 1
I think that there are two iconic American dreams: one of coming to America and one of leaving it. Alice, Straying‘s narrator, decides to visit Ireland because she realizes that a full European tour is out of her budget; she ends up moving there in working in a pub for a summer, and though her experience isn’t glamorous at all I still felt my heart beating faster.
How romantic! I thought. I wish I could drop everything and move to Ireland.
And that was the last romantic, silly thought I had while reading this book, which is one of the dreariest I’ve experienced in some time.
Part of that dullness lies in Straying’s subject matter. I don’t like to ding authors for that in my reviews, since more than anything else, our preferences for what we like to read and write about are personal. I can’t develop a coherent rubric for why I love books about cults but am wary of mid-life crisis novels; it’s pure preference, and I had the sneaking suspicion throughout Straying that nearly everything I disliked about it was just that: preference.
McCloskey seems to evade (or at times, to stomp on) warm-fuzzies everywhere they might naturally pop up. In a nutshell, Straying is about how Alice moves to Ireland, falls in a sort-of love, falls out of it, embarks on an affair, works for NGOs in war zones, loses her mother, and feels a lot of things about homesickness. The novel is told out of order, partially in flashback to the ’80s and partially in the present day, so this is all established early (which is why I don’t consider them spoilers). The tension lies entirely in the sordid specifics, which unspool agonizingly slowly and pessimistically.
For example, instead of finding any sort of tourist’s joy in Ireland, Alice seems disenchanted immediately. The kindest, most loving thought she has about Eddie, her once-husband, is about his solidness–that he will someday be the kind of old man she likes. She loves her mother recklessly and yet lives almost her whole life away from her.
To me that’s all very realistic, very sad, and very, very boring.
But what do I know? Another major theme of the book is the recklessness of youth. I’m 23 and fully in my reckless phase, so it was probably inevitable that I would find this book as dry as sawdust. (When I initially picked it up, I thought more of it would focus on Alice’s younger self, but it’s mostly told from her late middle age.) I’m about to get married myself–of course I’m not going to want to be reminded of all the ways my life could go wrong. Of course I would find this book stolid. Of course I would find it unpleasantly hardened.
But there’s still a lot to like here. Every character feels almost disconcertingly three-dimensional, like I could access their backstories Magic Eye-style by crossing my eyes a bit. McCloskey has a knack for making observations about life that are so true and painful that they made my blood run cold. And Alice is a truly wonderful first-person narrator, prickly and vulnerable, someone we get a real sense of as a participant in the story instead of someone who is just a glorified third-person narrator.
Most of all, I loved how McCloskey writes about Ireland in the 1980s. While I was reading, Ireland’s grimy upstart-ness, its trauma and resilience, its falls and rebirths, and its smells and sights and geography were all as real to me as the Saint Paul, Minnesota streets outside my window.
While Straying wasn’t to my taste, it still felt like a conversation with someone very interesting; someone whom you want very much to like you and think of you as sophisticated. Maybe it wasn’t to my taste exactly because I didn’t feel like I measured up to the novel’s exacting gaze.
No one likes to be predictable. Everyone likes to think their story is the special one. Perhaps McCloskey’s refusal to write about someone special is, in itself, very special, even if it is far from enjoyable. It’s food for thought, anyway. ★★★☆☆
My copy of Straying came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.