this is a book about *jazz hands* the theater, where as much of the acting, or rather performing, occurs offstage as on.
at the novel’s center is malcolm mercer—a celebrated actor-director and legendary narcissist known for pushing his cast beyond their emotional and/or psychological breaking points for the sake of aaaaaart, his casual disregard for the trail of broken actors and brokenhearted sexual conquests left carelessly in his wake excused because of his genius &yadda.
around the charismatic lodestone of malcolm circle two women; joanna—his longtime business partner, friend, platonic roommate, and enabler, and kira—hungry for her big break, soon-to-be starring opposite malcolm in an edgy, erotic, and violent new two-person play.
these two female characters take turns driving the narrative in ever-narrowing circles around malcolm, or at least their idea of malcolm; their alternating chapters failing the bechdel test on every single page, yet somehow paradoxically building into a story all about women and female power.
it’s a fascinating slow burn of a debut touching on obsession, competition, ambition and jealousy, with some outstanding POV work. because he’s never given an opportunity to speak for himself, the only insight we get into malcolm’s motives or behavior is through kira and joanna’s interpretive filters, which, despite the profound effects of his actions and influence on everyone, sorta reduces him to a prop, albeit a cruel, sadistic, douchey prop.
furthermore, in these alternating POV chapters, when we see how deeply these women misunderstand and misinterpret each other’s whole fundamental deals, it’s clear we’ve become the captive audience to a tale of two unreliable narrators, making malcolm even more nebulous an entity—someone’s idea of a prop.
there are many layers to unravel here—secrets nested within secrets, misjudged actions inciting misguided reactions, tensions rising, complications rippling every which way and it is ALL VERY DRAMATIC INDEED.
however, one of the problems with being excellent at character development is that you can do your own story a disservice in the realm of “surprising plot twists.” if the reader understands these characters down to their bones, it’s not difficult to connect “what motivates them” to “what they will do/have done to achieve their goals.”
i like plot twists as much as the next guy, but i’ve read too many psych suspense books that’re just coasting on the “look at me!” flash of their twists. fargo has done the hard work required to strengthen her story’s core instead of striving for the narrative equivalent of rock-hard abs; more decorative than useful, but these efforts ultimately undermine the element of surprise.
i appreciate it so much when i can see an author’s dedication to the work—whether it’s in their research, an ambitious story-structure, or even just the sense that they’ve got a coffee-stained vision board somewhere stuck all over with different colored post-it notes strung to raggedy-edged magazine clippings and vintage postcards.
here it’s character work for days. there’s the very basic surface opposition: joanna, well-tailored and angular, a study in cool, competent, controlled repression, v. kira—the very definition of blowsy: all curves and unruly hair, bed-rumpled and unpunctual. beyond that, it’s all brambles: the assumptions each makes about the other, the red herrings and coincidences, backstories and bedrooms, secrets and strengths, madness and method (acting).
even though the shock of it all was muted for me by way of chekhov’s foreshadowing, my overdeveloped readerly empathy & her too-good character work, that just makes me even more excited to read her next one, They Never Learn, which i have here on deck for SOON reading.
I WON A GOODREADS GIVEAWAY! TREMENDOUS!!!