By Wendy Smith
Friday, March 11, 2011; 8:44 PM
It's been 17 years since Carol Edgarian's best-selling, critically acclaimed first novel, "Rise the Euphrates," announced the arrival of a gifted and ambitious young writer. Yet that long pause feels right when you read "Three Stages of Amazement," her rueful, wholly adult second novel. It's not that Edgarian had to have three children and found an online literary magazine (Narrative) to understand the conflicts of a middle-aged couple in crisis - a good fiction writer can imagine anything - but the weight of lived experience gives a specific gravity to her account of a year that tests to the limit Lena Rusch and Charlie Pepper's comfortable assumptions about the world and their privileged place in it.
The novel begins on Dec. 31, 2008, "the last day of the lousiest year of their lives," Lena thinks as she prepares a New Year's Eve dinner. Eighteen months ago, she and Charlie quit their jobs in Boston - his as a star surgeon at Mass General, hers as a senior producer at WGBH - and moved to San Francisco so Charlie could work full time on producing Nimbus, a simple, inexpensive surgical robot that could be used in Third World hospitals like the Ugandan clinic where he worked while Lena was making a documentary on the global AIDS crisis. They planned to do good and make a lot of money, too. Meanwhile, why not make a baby sister for their son, Theo?
"They were as ordinary as any two people wanting more," Edgarian writes. A calm, omniscient narrator hovers over Lena and Charlie, articulating their dilemmas in a polished weave of metaphors that might seem overly studied if the emotional content weren't so strong. After the move, Lena gave birth prematurely to twin girls. One died immediately; the other, Willa, now 10 months old, has been hospitalized a dozen times: "The doctors talked gravely of cognitive delays, and worse."
Lena is coping with this desperate situation virtually alone. Charlie is consumed by the struggle to keep Nimbus alive in the wake of the economic meltdown. The only person willing to finance him is venture capitalist Cal Rusch, but Charlie doesn't dare tell Lena about this offer from her detested uncle. When they moved west, she made Charlie promise that the one person he would never take money from was Cal Rusch. What choice does he have? "Nimbus had a few months of capital left, and then the lights went out."
Edgarian brilliantly evokes the grim daily grind of her overwhelmed protagonists, doggedly putting one foot in front of the other as they move from one immediately pressing demand to the next, their separate trajectories increasing their sense of loneliness and estrangement. It's Lena in particular who needs to grow up, as Charlie savagely tells her in the scene that marks the breakdown of their marriage. She's always dreaded being ordinary - she wants to do "amazing" things. Swamped by her children's needs, furious with her too-often-absent husband, she revises but doesn't fundamentally alter what she expects: "There must be something heroic about getting through the day with a bit of grace." Edgarian expertly rings changes on key words like "amazement," "grace" and "heart" to delineate Lena's education in reality. The most emotionally fluent and self-conscious character in a novel full of hyper-articulate, hyper-aware people, she nonetheless has blind spots that link her to Cal by personality as well as blood. Both need to master their hunger for something better, something perfect that must be just around the corner.
But will they? Edgarian, very much the old-fashioned, godlike novelist in this superbly crafted, skillfully plotted text, doles out retribution and rewards not entirely on the basis of merit. She chastens her characters but doesn't judge them. Instead, "Three Stages of Amazement" savors the rich complexity of human beings and the world they negotiate. Lena and Charlie get a second chance; what they will make of it is not at all certain. There are no final happy endings, only "life, this crazy life, and if you didn't laugh it broke you. It broke you anyway, but it was better if you laughed."
Smith is a contributing editor at the American Scholar.
THREE STAGES OF AMAZEMENT
By Carol Edgarian
Scribner. 296 pp. $25