Anywhere but the Second Half
By Mona Simpson
Knopf, 336 pages
Novelist Mona Simpson has spent most of her career puzzling out the complicated relationships between distant, baffling adults and their alienated children. In her first three books (Anywhere But Here, The Lost Father, and A Regular Guy), as in almost every realistic novel describing divorce in the ’70s and ’80s, separation forced children from their fathers, with traumatic results. But Casebook, her sixth novel, begins in the year 2000, and in this new millennium, divorce isn’t what it used to be. For one thing, estranged fathers are no longer so easily lost. Shared custody has become the norm; nowadays, no self-respecting upper-middle-class dad would ever skip town. What’s more, divorced parents vow to stay friends “for the kids” for the rest of their lives. In Casebook, Simpson takes aim at the new, friendly, child-centered divorce, and cleverly articulates the particular stresses it engenders.
The novel’s protagonist is Miles Adler-Hart, a precocious, pudgy fourth grader whose privileged childhood in Santa Monica crashes down around his ears the day his parents announce their separation. Or does it? “Before, my parents had fought about which one of them would have to go to the class picnic, who’d show up for the teacher conference, back-to-school night, blah blah blah,” Miles observes. “Now they still fought, but over who would get to.”
After the split, Miles and his younger twin sisters (whom he calls “the Boops”) see more of their father than before. “My dad’s gunning for an A in separation,” he tells his best friend, Hector. Their mom, aka “the Mims,” steps up her game accordingly, making pizza dough from scratch after work every day. Both parents take the kids to see The Sound of Music “as a family.” (“We’d never done anything as a family before,” Miles quips.) In truth, the separation isn’t the cataclysm he’d feared; most days Miles feels “as if we’d gotten another life but an okay one.”
In this new, okay life, Miles spies constantly on his mother. Before the separation, he’d hoped to overhear whether she was finally going to let him watch Survivor; after his dad moves out, his eavesdropping gains focus and intent. For Miles, not knowing why his parents’ marriage failed is worse than the fact of their separation. (Did someone have an affair? Who fell out of love first, and whose idea was it to split up?) He and Hector jerry-rig a phone extension so they can listen to his mother’s calls, and Miles rummages through her underwear drawer looking for clues. But the mystery persists.
When his mother announces she’s dating a geeky scientist named Eli, Miles is torn. He picks Eli’s appearance and personality apart. “He stood no taller than my dad and he had weird hair that stuck up on top like an artichoke gone to flower,” Miles observes. “He had ears I kind of wanted to pull. Walking to the restaurant, he put his hand on my mom’s back. It seemed wrong. She’s ours not yours, I thought.”
The Mims and Eli, who is also divorced and shares custody of his son, do everything possible to accommodate their respective children. Though Eli lives in Washington D.C., he stays in motels when he flies to California to visit, and pays kind attention to Miles and his sisters. “I love them already,” he tells Miles’s mother as the boy listens from behind a door. “They’re your children.” Everything Miles finds or overhears seems downright benign. Eli writes mash notes and helps the Mims make a budget. He offers to buy the family a new sofa; he seems to have turned down a job to spend more time with her. “I think we should go away together once a month,” Miles hears Eli tell his mom. “And every Friday night, we’ll take the kids out for dinner. It’s good to build rituals.”
Eli seems like a winner. “The truth is, I think I’m happier now,” the Mims tells her shrink. Miles, who’s eavesdropping from the basement instead of doing homework in the waiting room, takes notes.
Simpson’s impressionistic writing style—short, sharp sentences, tight little paragraphs, snippets of dialogue—works wonderfully when the novel’s action is zipping along, as it does in the beginning of the book. (Miles’s parents announce their separation on page 15. Five pages later, Eli appears.) These early scenes feel pithy and compact, and the reader assembles Simpson’s scraps of narrative in the same way Miles gathers and analyzes his clues.
Then the action stalls. For pages and pages—for years and years, actually, though Simpson’s stop-and-go storytelling makes it difficult to gauge the passage of time—nothing much happens. Eli and the Mims continue their long-distance courtship. Miles reads their emails, listens to their conversations, decides one minute that Eli’s a nice guy and the next that he’s a creep. Suddenly, the reader realizes that Miles is now in high school, with no social life, no independence, and with every single one of his fourth-grade hangups intact.
Could the new divorce—in which change is introduced at glacial speed, the better to give everyone time to adjust—actually smother and stymie the very children it’s meant to soothe?
Several quietly brilliant scenes support this heresy. The Mims’s well-intentioned dithering (“He called me up last night and said, ‘Don’t you just want to go to the movies with me?’ And I do. But I have to think of the kids”) eventually manages to irritate even Miles. (“Oh, just go to the movies, I felt like saying.”) And when the Boops, years after the divorce, beg Miles to tell them what went wrong between their parents, Miles can’t quite explain. “He’s kind of like, going out late at night in Hollywood,” he tells them. “And she wanted pictures on the stairway wall. A piano in the living room.” (“But we have pictures on the wall and a piano,” his poor sister wails in response.) The problem, Miles thinks, is that “people don’t talk about how weird it is when your separated parents get along.” Divorce may have been traumatic in the old days, but at least a sudden break, no matter how painful, lets everyone know it’s time to move on.
These are subtle and original points, and Simpson makes them well, which is why it’s utterly baffling when Casebook pulls an about-face completely out of the blue. Halfway through the book, Miles and the Mims find out that Eli is a high-functioning sociopath who has been lying about everything all along. He’s not divorced. He’s not devoted. He doesn’t even live where he said he did, and he never intended to become anyone’s husband or stepfather. The Mims is devastated; Miles (even after all his sleuthing) is shocked. The reader is only annoyed.
Nothing comes together as a result of this revelation, nor does the novel suddenly make a new kind of sense. Eli’s perfidy simply doesn’t compute. A brand new character—a private investigator who helps Hector and Miles unmask Eli’s true identity—seems to have wandered in from another book, and whatever Simpson was building to in the novel’s first half is swept away in a tide of absurdity. Ridiculous sub-plots involving stray animals, a bogus animal-rescue service, and a comically inept effort at revenge, suddenly abound. It’s as if Simpson, desperate to galvanize her flagging novel, patched in some cloak-and-dagger hijinks, a few outlandish events, and a real live bad guy, crossing her fingers that something—anything—would do the trick.
By the time the book grinds to its thoroughly depressing conclusion, we’ve stopped caring. The dregs of Simpson’s plot eddy around the drain, while her prose—those short, stingy sentences—comes to seem aimless and flat. We are left with the sour feeling that comes from reading about ruined childhoods and pointlessly wasted lives. “In the end, it was a small sad story of accommodation to damage,” Miles says, after snooping in his mother’s sex diary and feeling much worse after reading. We know exactly what he means.