By Maria Flook
Little, Brown. 262 pp. $23.95
Alden Warren has a peculiar problem -- a missing husband whom no one in all of Cape Cod thinks she should miss. True, schoolteacher Monty was a philanderer who was carrying on a rather unabashed affair with another butterfly lover; Monty's butterfly diorama is one of the few clues to his abrupt leave-taking. Two years later, Alden remains loyal to her imperfect spouse, regularly checking various Internet sites and calling an amnesia hotline, just in case Monty no longer knows who he is. She has dalliances but considers them mere "fillers" until Monty returns.
Lux Davis, the title character of Maria Flook's latest novel, has an even more peculiar problem. He's carrying a torch for Alden, and he knows that Monty is never coming back. Lux can be certain of this because he's responsible for Monty's disappearance and is now sweating his reappearance. The trees beneath which Monty is buried were to have remained undisturbed for the next five years, but plans change, as Lux's boss at the nursery notes. So even as Lux is trying to persuade Alden that he's more than a place-marker, he's figuring out how to smuggle Monty's bones to a new, safer hiding place.
And so we are plunged into Flook's off-season, off-kilter Cape Cod, a place where such a love story seems not only plausible, but natural and fitting. Alden and Lux are soul mates, in synch with each other and the brutal beauty of the world around them. As for the pesky fact that Lux killed Monty -- well, Alden clearly needed to be rescued. Besides, since Monty's death, Lux has been on a course of self-improvement, abstaining from alcohol and reading 19th-century American literature.
Where another writer might have constructed a somber morality tale out of this material, Flook is impish and inventive. She finds humor in odd places -- a secondary character's loss of three fingers, for example -- yet she is never cruel or arbitrary toward her characters. Instead of worrying whether readers might like them, she makes it clear that she likes them, and so we tag along, curious to learn what she sees in them.
As it turns out, both Alden and Lux had difficult childhoods. He was born with a rare neurological disorder, and his mother blames him for his father's disappearance. Alden's father was spectacularly unreliable, using his daughter to help him on his local shoplifting expeditions. Such material, for all its pathos, is never treacly, for Flook is a refreshingly unsentimental writer. Her language is genuinely lyrical yet seldom forced. She also has a great feel for nature, without the overdone flourishes that so often sink writers intent on documenting every bit of flora and fauna.
Lyricism has its risks, and the sheer cumulative force of Flook's similes and metaphors can overwhelm at times. When Alden contemplates the chemistry between her and Lux, it reminds her of "a ticklish, itchy sensation, like the feeling when she sewed a thread between two back teeth." Such passages made me feel a bit like Lux's unsympathetic social worker, Hester Pierson, who doesn't warm to Alden, much less her plan to adopt an abandoned baby. "The social worker didn't like metaphors cropping up in her transactions," Flook writes. "She knew that people who speak in metaphors can't be trusted and are often rejected from jury duty for good reason." She may be a pedant, but Hester has a point. Still, my admiration for Lux never flagged, especially when I learned that it was completed before Flook's 2003 bestseller Invisible Eden. That nonfiction book centered on the unsolved murder of Christa Worthington, a former fashion journalist who was stabbed to death in her Truro home. Eden's subtitle, "A Story of Love and Murder on Cape Cod," would have worked just as well for Lux. Even as I wondered how a book as tight and precise as Lux could be produced so quickly, I also worried it was a cynical bit of recycling.
I've never been happier to be wrong. Lux was not only finished before Eden was commissioned; it originally had a darker ending, according to a 2003 interview with Flook at IdentityTheory.com. She admits that she rethought the last chapter of the novel at her editor's suggestion and believes the book is better as a result -- not exactly happy, but certainly less bleak. Without the original ending available, it's hard to assess Flook's decision, but I suspect she's right. So Lux is not only a fine novel in its own right; it's also proof that editors still edit, one of the happiest endings I can imagine.
Laura Lippman is a Baltimore-based crime writer whose most recent novel, "Every Secret Thing," has just come out in paperback.