Two new first novels, psychological thrillers, borrow from similar themes and settings with mixed results. Paul Jaskunas' elegant debut, Hidden, is the story of Maggie, a woman who has been assaulted and profoundly injured, only to find out, six years later, that the man who went to prison for the crime is being released following the confession of another inmate. Maggie has returned to the rural Indiana farmhouse where the crime occurred, to search her seizure-wracked mind, as well as the mountain of court documents piled in her dining room, and discern the truth about her attack. Hidden, written in a first-person woman's voice by a male author, explores the aftermath of trauma, the limits of trust and the urgent struggle for survival.
The Doctor's Wife by Elizabeth Brundage is the story of Michael and Anne Knowles, attractive and well-off yuppies living in an idyllic rural farmhouse outside the upstate New York town where Michael practices medicine as an Ob-Gyn. When Michael's old classmate (and former lover) from Harvard, Dr. Celina James, appears on the scene running a women's health clinic for indigents and asks Michael to assist with abortions, the family's perfect life is threatened persistently by the aggressive anti-abortion tactics of an evangelical minister and his minions.
The old adage rears its wise head: Great fiction is built on characters. While Brundage seizes on a compelling dramatic premise -- assaults on abortion clinic doctors by rabid ideologues -- she sacrifices focus on the inner lives of her characters, allowing them ultimately to behave stupidly and to come off as stick persons manufactured to match the author's storytelling requirements.
Both authors use setting as primary motifs in their books. New Harmony, Indiana, where Maggie lives, is the remains of a 19th-century Utopian community founded by Germans looking for simplicity and repose. The rural area surrounding contemporary New Harmony is inhabited either by outcasts and losers, grumpy farm families barely getting by, or well-to-do upstarts like Maggie and her ambitious husband Nate. The Knowles enjoy a Town & Country life in what used to be the country and is now expanded suburbia, designed for isolation and comfort rather than productivity. It is the place where we dream of living, until our lives get messy and a great location matters little any more.
Both books open with graphic accounts of assaults on the main characters. In Hidden, we get Maggie's blurred perspective of her attack. In The Doctor's Wife, we witness Dr. Knowles being paged and lured to the hospital, then taken captive, drugged and thrown over a cliff in his car. From there, both books digress to give us background on the unhappy marriages and the dramatic conflicts that drive the narratives.
Both authors give their female protagonists adulterous affairs to heighten the conflict -- Maggie's with a compassionate co-worker, Annie's with an emotionally distant but charismatic painter. The deft and not-so-deft handling of this subtext further distinguishes Hidden from The Doctor's Wife. Maggie's affair comes off as desperate but appropriate given her circumstance. Annie's, on the other hand, given her choice of paramour and the overwhelming pathology of his own marriage, all stirred up into a love triangle that barely escapes the norms of a breast-beating romance novel plot, comes off as selfish, misguided and implausible.
The Doctor's Wife ends in a well-crafted but equally implausible dramatic rescue where all loose ends are neatly tied up. Hidden ends on a note of hopeful uncertainty -- the kind of ambiguity that complicated lives, successfully explored, demand.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Hidden by Paul Jaskunas (Free Press: New York) $23/hardcover
The Doctor's Wife by Elizabeth Brundage (Viking: New York) $24.95/hardcover