Books

Book Review: ‘Among the Ten Thousand Things,’ by Julia Pierpont

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Julia Pierpont, 28, a recent graduate of the NYU Creative Writing Program, is wise beyond her years. She has written a New York-centric debut novel—which sold for six figures—about the mid-life dissolution of a marriage and family. It was quite a task she set for herself, and in the main, she has succeeded.

The novel’s opening is stunning: a long letter from a mistress to a wife, detailing her husband’s seven-month infidelity. As with Gone Girl, another novel about a dissolving New York marriage, the reader is immediately riveted. How could you not be? What, you wonder, could possibly happen next?

What happens next, and throughout the following 322 pages, is not exactly what you would expect. Pierpont is a canny and unexpected storyteller. For although the adults in this novel—Jack Shanley, an artist, and his wife, Deb, a former ballet dancer—appear to be the main characters, in fact much of the novel is about their two children, Kay, age 11, and her 15-year-old brother, Simon.

Anyone who lives in a New York apartment house will relate to the mix-up that alerts the children to Jack’s betrayal. The doorman places a large box containing erotic emails between Jack and his mistress into the hands of young Kay. Of course, she peeks. And from that moment on it becomes clear that this novel is less about the failed marriage than about how the mysteries of adult life reverberate within children and ricochet among family members. And while Pierpont depicts totally believable adults, it’s the children in this novel—in all their pretend grown-upness and vulnerability—that grab you.

Pierpont is totally sure-footed when writing about children, in and out of family life. For example, she opens one chapter with the following observation: “Fathers have a way with daughters that mothers never do . . . . If her mother dressed Deb’s wounds, her father was the one who kissed them to make them better.” And she is cannily observant about marriage. “Women were the real workers of the family; men got to be allies to their children.” Bingo.

Pierpont views her adults more from the outside than from the inside. Very occasionally we get inside Deb’s beating heart (though not often enough), but rarely inside Jack’s self-involved self. And only gradually do we understand the lack of innocence of both parties. It’s Jack’s second marriage; Deb was the “other woman” who brought down his first. We understand where Deb is coming from, but when Pierpont writes about her narcissistic husband, “Jack did not really, in the end, believe he’d done anything so wrong,” it seems a touch too facile. On the other hand, Deb’s mother, Grandma Ruth, is a treasure. And after she says to her daughter, “What do you want a child for? You will never again know when it is safe to feel happy,” I wish we saw and heard more from her.

Pierpont writes sentences that keep you guessing. Here is one that starts a new chapter. “From the plain and spoon-shaped, Kay sifted out the kind that looked like fish, with wide-open eyes and painted scales. Also the feathered ones, hot pink and yellow, which felt soft skimming her cheek.” Care to figure out what that’s about? You can’t, until you read further down the paragraph and discover it’s about fish lures. Sometimes this style tic works, sometimes it annoys (“On their walks Deb and Kay went no particular where”), but it does add up to a unique voice about what is, let’s face it, a far-from-unique story.

Pierpont has other tricks up her sleeve. Halfway through the novel, she tells you how it all turns out. She withdraws what is usually the driving narrative force in a page-turner and dives deeper into the psyches of her characters. So, even though you know exactly what will happen, you still want to know how what-will-happen happens. And again, the real emotional focus is on the kids. That is where the real surprises in this novel lie.

Pierpont is a sophisticated storyteller who has written a debut novel that is surprisingly mature and emotionally wise. Perhaps that is due, in part, to her upbringing as the daughter of a literary mother (Claudia Roth Pierpont, a New Yorker staff writer and author of Roth Unbound), and the student of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. Or perhaps it is simply due to her precocity as a writer. In any case, she has taken the artsy, well to do, West Side private-school world she knows so well and fashioned it into a novel whose characters will stay with you, long after summer fades into fall.

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