If this seems like a plot that requires the violins of a Lifetime movie, rest assured that Bauer doesn’t go all vibrato on the heartstrings. On the contrary, one of the novel’s chief strengths is that its heroine is so sharp and unsentimental. No perfect mourning widow, Carmen continues to keep her weekly hotel assignation with her married lover, Danny. But rather than freeing her, Jobe’s death suddenly makes her affair less scintillating. Sex with Danny now seems as mundane as marriage itself: “It reminded Carmen vaguely of unloading the dishwasher, taking bundles of forks out and setting them in a drawer. Not unpleasant, by any means, and satisfying in its way.”
Sex and chemotherapy: What a cocktail of bodily sensations. Bauer’s strength is the down-and-dirty details that nail Carmen’s reactions with humor and precision. About having sex with Jobe, Carmen proclaims, “There was no part of her that wanted to touch him; he was fascinating the way a live lobster was.” Their honeymoon consummation leaves her “feeling the sort of mild pleasure she did when scratching a mosquito bite.” About the uncaring automaton scheduling her chemo appointment, Carmen notes, “The voice on the other end of the phone was monotone, checking off details the way a weary carnival ride operator might announce, ‘Keep your hands inside the car at all times.’ ”
“The Forever Marriage” is told in alternating chapters that contrast Carmen’s current life with the beginning of her courtship with her husband, when she was 21, unrooted, too poor to finish college, and still smarting from the death of her mother. Jobe not only comes from money, but his kind mother serves as a mooring presence for Carmen.
The sections laying bare the blow-by-blows of marital history are less engaging than those dealing with Carmen’s current conundrums. And since the backstory takes up such a large chunk of the novel, Bauer doesn’t have as much time to develop some of the most fascinating aspects of her heroine’s plight. We see very little about how the couple negotiates having a child with Down syndrome. “The ugly genius and his pretty little wife are going to have a retarded baby,” Jobe announces before the baby is born, and he seems not alarmed by the news but complacent, accepting. Nor do we get a full sense of Carmen’s relationship with her other two children, either before or after Jobe’s death. Her teenaged daughter has a mini-drama about birth control then mostly fades into the background; her youngest son’s main role is to insist that he is being visited by his father’s ghost from the great beyond.
That ghost drops in on Carmen as well, urging her to decipher Riemann’s Hypothesis, the mathematical puzzle that Jobe was unable to finish solving in his lifetime. . Except, perhaps, he really did, in those enigmatic notes on the dining room table. And Carmen — an art history major and Web site designer, long dismissed as a bit of a ditz — rises to the challenge, with some help from her lover and a shapely Romanian graduate student. This part of the plot is scintillating, like a modern update of A.S. Byatt’s “Possession.”The hypothesis proves what Carmen grows to understand about her bad luck, as her oncologist explains about the odds of surviving cancer: “Groups are consistent; individuals are random. You are but one point in a set of millions. Your course is not determined.”
Zeidner’s fifth novel, “Love Bomb,” is forthcoming. She directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Rutgers-Camden.