Remarks: Jan Ellison's "A Small Indiscretion"
21 Jan 2015
When I created this website a couple of years ago, I included Jan Ellison on my Links page as one of just a few "up-and-coming" authors on the basis of her excellent short stories (read them here). As such, I was excited to learn that her first book, a novel, was being published by Random House. "A Small Indiscretion" is now out in hardback and digital form (buy it online here or here, or at a bookstore near you here). My spoiler-free remarks on it are as follows …
"A Small Indiscretion" is a novel about how events that are seemingly far in the past can, with little warning, re-emerge and consume the present. Annie Gunnlaugsson, a happily married mother of three in San Francisco, gets drawn back to events twenty years in the past, when she went to London as a 19-year-old, as the consequences of what happened then connect with more recent troubling events in the life of Annie and her family. Of books I've read recently, I think it is broadly similar to "Apple Tree Yard" by Louise Doughty (my remarks on that novel are here) both in terms of some (not all) of the issues raised and in style (literary "thriller" if we must use labels).
"A Small Indiscretion" is a good book and I encourage you to read it. It also reads like what it is --- a first novel. In the long run, I think it will be remembered that way, as part of Jan Ellison's early work, before she went on to write the critically acclaimed [insert names of future novels here].
Some novels lean more on plot, while others focus on ideas or characters. "A Small Indiscretion" charts something of a middle course. There is a plot, and it matters, but it is played out slowly. The characters are well-rendered, but the first-person point-of-view keeps the reader at a remove from all but the narrator. Some readers will likely find this a nice balance between action and people. Personally, I was left wanting more (not really a bad thing).
The orthodoxy, which Ms. Ellison is certainly aware of, holds that first-person narration is a dangerous tactic for novels, one that requires the "I" to be a character of dazzling interest. Annie Gunnlaugsson née Black, the narrator here, did not strike me as such a character, for two reasons.
First, Annie is relatively well-balanced and well-adjusted. After just a few months of making dubious choices about men and alcohol in Europe as she turns 20, she settles into twenty years of solid happy marriage complete with raising loving kids and having a fulfilling career. Yes, things unravel for her, but Annie doesn't unravel. She keeps up appearances quite well and generally does the reasonable thing, with perhaps one exception. To put it another way: at a dinner party, and setting aside any purely sexual interest, you would be neither excited nor scared if you were seated next to Annie. In contrast, the character of Emme is something of a hot mess, and what's going on inside her head strikes me as much more compelling and dramatic than Annie's comparatively sedate, albeit significant, ruminations.
Second, Annie is passive. I referred above to her making choices, which she does ... barely. Most of the significant choices she makes involve either accepting or rejecting a clear request made of her by another. (The exceptions that I recall: her decision to go to Europe as a teen, a letter she writes, a gallery visit, and a confession she makes.) Annie reacts rather than acts. Mostly, she acquiesces, typically in a fairly detached manner ("I let him"). Centering the narrative on, and channeling it through, the most passive character lessened the drama for me --- Annie is more of a passenger in her own story than the driver.
The plot does not do much to make up for the relatively passive narrator. Annie is not forced into action. What actions and choices she does make seem to have no impact on the way her two main "wants" in the novel are resolved. To make an analogy: a farmer in desperate need of rain for his crops might be a dramatic situation, but there's not much depth to the story if he just sits and hopes for rain. The outcome (either it rains or not) is disconnected from the choices the main character makes.
But within the rather stark bounds of first-person narration, Ellison does a good job of holding the reader's interest. Her insights on relationships and --- to put it too simply and broadly --- life, are sharp and usually well-put. The settings are well-described, but not over-specified. The fictional dream, to use John Gardner's term, is well-rendered and proceeds apace (one exception being when she is inconsistent about the date of a central traumatic event in the novel, see below). The plot picks up near the end and stays plausible, despite a very slight whiff of soap opera devices. To overstretch the above "farmer who needs rain" analogy: Ellison makes the ruminations of the farmer as he hopes for rain sufficiently interesting and insightful to keep the story afloat.
The novel would also likely hold more emotional impact for readers who are sold on a key premise: the connection between Annie and Patrick. Me, I didn't see it, not really. And unless that connection is felt in the reader's bones, then a pivotal event in the present of the novel --- Annie's renewed "obsession" with Patrick (albeit an obsession realized in Annie's typically passive manner) --- lacks apparent motivation. I didn't see anything in their initial relationship that could be rekindled 20 years later by a mere photo, nor did I see anything in Annie's marriage that suggested there was a gap to be filled. But the key phrase here is "I didn't see." That doesn't mean it isn't there, and I wouldn't be surprised if other readers did "get" the apparently deep connection between Annie and Patrick.
And yet I liked this book. I have suggested it to others. Ellison's skill is such that she overcomes what I see as the limits imposed by certain of her choices here, and produces an enjoyable and readable novel. But I was hoping for more, which is almost certainly unfair to Ms. Ellison. I first noticed her writing in her short stories, and was very impressed (I wish I had the time right now to go back and re-read them and see how they do/do not connect with "A Small Indiscretion"). Her first published short story was an O'Henry award winner, and the second got special mention in the Pushcart Prize volume, so I wasn't alone in being impressed. But of course a novel is a different beast. And "quick" acclaim (relative to number of stories published --- for all I know, she was writing seriously for a decade with numerous rejections before that first story was published) is a potential trap, as I'm guessing the pressure to produce a novel came soon and heavy. That Ms. Ellison continued, and produced an enjoyable novel under the burden of having struck gold on the first swing is commendable.
So my quibbles here are more a function of my (likely overly high) expectations. But between her skills with language and her insights, I think she is capable of even better work than this. For example, I was very impressed with Louise Doughty's "Apple Tree Yard" (my remarks are here), which covers some of the same conceptual ground as "A Small Indiscretion." But "Apple Tree Yard" is Doughty's seventh novel, and her first ("Crazy Paving") is not at that level, in my opinion. I suspect and hope that Jan Ellison will progress similarly.
Specific Quibbles That Should Not Be Assigned Great Importance
+ An accident, one of great significance for the narrative, is specifically stated at the start of chapter one as having happened in the early morning of September 5, 2011. Yet in chapter three, the accident is placed as being "three days" after an "evening in late August," so September 3rd, at the latest. Both of these characterizations come straight from the narrator, so I suppose it could be an instance of an unreliable narrator, but I instead suspect that it's just a goof.
+ More generally, the first few chapters bounce around in time in a way I found somewhat annoying. The big time transitions, between the more-or-less present and about 20 years ago, are handled very gracefully. But the beginning of the book jumps back and forth in the more-or-less present (May, June, July, August, and September of 2011, plus February of 2012) in a way I found disorienting, though perhaps that was Ellison's intent. Once the story settled into the dual timelines (roughly, March 2012 onward mixed with her recollections of about 20 years past) it went smoother.
+ The framing device for most of the book is that Annie is, loosely, writing it as a letter to her son, a senior in college. This mostly worked for me, except for the rather detailed descriptions of her sexual experiences, both with his father and others, as those seemed unlikely material for a generally conventional mother like Annie to share with her son.
+ At an important point in the story, character X makes a concerted effort to convince character Y that character Y is not fit to drive. Character X then goes to some lengths to make it impossible for character Y to drive. Yet very soon thereafter, for no discernable reason, character X ends up as a passenger in a car driven by character Y.
+ At points, some of the dialogue sounds clunky out loud, perhaps more so than is the norm.
+ Ellison does a great job of steering clear of cliché, which makes the one slip in that regard (at least the only one I noticed) stand out all the more clearly. Annie goes to a Starbucks and observes another customer place a "ridiculously precise and long-winded" order for her coffee, complain about it to the barista in similarly complicated fashion, then ask for water for her dog, and finally complain that said dog water was too warm. Annie reacts thusly: "It occurred to me that not so long ago, my concerns had been like hers---trivial enough." Of all the ways to have Annie be reminded of how her past concerns had largely been trivial, the overly demanding Starbucks customer with the complex coffee order is a pretty trite way to go. Again, this stands out only against the originality of the rest of Ellison's prose, so it is most certainly not representative of the novel as a whole.
+ It's not exactly cliché, but Ellison references the famous line from the movie "Unfaithful" when she has a character say, in regards to an affair with a married person, "I don't really believe in mistakes. There's only what you do, and what you don't do, isn't there?" The movie line is: "There is no such thing as a mistake. There are things you do, and things you don't do." Not verbatim, but the context is the same in both cases. (The line in the book is said by a character in the early 1990s, whereas the movie came out in 2002.)
+ The phrase "a contusion of words" [Chapter One, seventh paragraph, first sentence, Kindle version] should probably be "a confusion of words," as the sentence is referring to what the narrator is hearing in the moment, whereas a contusion is something you end up with after the fact. A typo, I'm assuming.
+ The epilogue doesn't ring true for me, in the sense of following from all that comes before it. I understand the impulse to tie up the major loose ends in a story, but the particular resolution here strikes me as implausible. It veers sharply from what seems to be a rather clear trajectory established over many pages.
+ "A libertine past" is a phrase that appears in the publisher's description of the book, as well as in at least one review (Kirkus Reviews), but I don't think it applies here. Annie leaves for Europe in September as a virgin 19-year-old. By January, she has met the man she will be faithful to for the next two decades and marries him in June. So the "libertine" phase here is all of maybe three months, during which time she sleeps with two men (maybe 2.5, depending on how you want to tally things). She knows both men and has feelings of some sort for both of them, and quite strong feelings for one of them. If anything, it's the lack of a truly libertine past that causes problems for Annie.
Finally, a reminder. These are remarks, not a review. The difference? By calling them "remarks" I can take shelter behind the Stein-Hemingway Theorem: "Remarks are not literature." Thus protected, I don't feel the need to spend days (or hours) polishing these remarks. Also, I read the novel in just two sittings over one night and the following morning, then wrote up these remarks in a third sitting that same afternoon. So these are not deeply considered ideas culled over time. Instead, they reflect my initial reactions in the moment, which is an admittedly unfair way to judge a novel that took at least months, and more likely years, to write.
Disclaimer: I bought my own copy of this book and am posting these remarks entirely on my own initiative. None of the above links are "referral" links (i.e., I don't make any money if you click on them). I did know Ms. Ellison briefly some years ago, but it was in a professional capacity unrelated to fiction and we did not stay in touch. I came across her work on my own, and did not originally connect it with the person I had known. But I did know her, and we have exchanged a few messages on Twitter this past week. This is all a long way of saying that I don't think my review is biased by my very limited connection with the author, but (as is my practice) I disclose any relationships "out of an abundance of caution."