Throughout the year, my spouse reads books about science, the economy, the economics of science, or the effects of the science industry on the economy, and scientific research papers about the brain structures of schizophrenic mice.* But every December 1, he asks me for a recommendation for a novel for him to read during his company’s annual shutdown.
This past December, I picked a winner for him: Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. He loved the book, and he wanted to discuss it with me, but there were four years and a cross-country move between me and my reading of the book, and I couldn’t remember the details well enough to talk about them. Setting aside his disappointment, he made a remarkable proposition: Why don’t he and I read Pessl’s second novel, Night Film, together? We could have a Spouses Book Club!
This suggestion was unprecedented from so many angles. It was the first time in our 20 years together that he read more than one novel in a year, the first time he and I read together, and the first time he’d ever proposed that we discuss a book. It’s the most romantic thing he’s ever done for me aside from sitting behind me in the tub while I birthed our son and taking the car for regular oil changes so I don’t have to. (He knows I’m not big on cut flowers.)
We got two copies from the library, and we were ready to go.
We knew that I read faster than he does, so I’d planned to give him a three-week head start before opening the book. But a week into March, he was getting antsy that I’d not started it yet; he wanted to talk to me about it.
So one Sunday night I started the book. That night we went to bed with our bookmarks in the same pages of our respective copies of the book. We talked Monday about how spooky I found the book and how I’d needed to turn the lights on to go down the hall to the bedroom the night before. He didn’t see what was scary about the book at all. This was what we’d been seeking! Sharing our differing experiences of the same book! Spouses Book Club was off to a brilliant start!
On Wednesday I finished the book. He was still 500 pages from the end. He was not happy that I’d outpaced him so comprehensively, but he can reach things on the top shelves of the kitchen cupboards without getting a stool, so I don’t feel too bad about this little advantage.
And besides, once I started the book, I couldn’t put it down. As each clue and development drew the characters further into the mystery, it also drew me further into the story. Not only was it an incredible story, it’s one of the only times I’ve read a novel set in New York City that didn’t irritate me with how self-conscious it was about being set in New York City.
I think the thing that I really appreciated was that it wasn’t just about solving a mystery. It was also about facing death head-on every day so we live with what’s important to us in the fore of our minds all the time. It’s about facing hubris and about the value of being the “good guy” even if there’s nothing in it for us (and even if it’s not clear what “being the good guy” entails). It’s about protecting those we love from the parts of us that can hurt them. It’s about how there can be multiple versions of a story that are all “true,” and about how the most logical answer to a question isn’t always the most satisfying one. Life is messy, and if our lives aren’t messy, we aren’t really digging into them.
Lacking a smart phone, I did not use any of the interactive features of the novel, but I kind of like that they’re there, despite my Luddite tendencies. I certainly found the multi-media presentation style (i.e., the use of visuals as a storytelling element) effective, at least in freaking me the heck out.
So, Honey, if you’re reading this, it’s really not my fault that I finished the book before you did. Blame Marisha Pessl. (And come on and finish the book so we can talk about it!)
*My spouse informs me that there’s no such thing as a schizophrenic mouse, and what he actually reads about is the absence of a good mouse model for schizophrenia. I stand corrected.