A quarter of the way through Mr. Peanut, I’d decided not to review it. The story had already twisted into a double helix, the ideas about marriage and its ever-changing kaleidoscope of emotions had already set my mind spinning; I knew I couldn’t do it, and what’s more, I didn’t want to try.
But to not tell you about this book would be a disservice to this blog and my master plan to take over the — no, I just wanted to tell you what I can about this complex, dramatic, ruminative novel by a talented writer with one dark mind.
The jacket copy of Mr. Peanut describes the novel as “structurally and emotionally” complex, and for once, the jacket copy is right. The frame from which the book hangs is the story of David and Alice Pepin, a video game designer and a counselor for troubled kids who have been together for 13 years and through many, many of Alice’s desperate and destructive diets. But when the Pepins’ story turns complicated – Alice is found dead in her kitchen, covered in the peanuts she is deathly allergic to, and David’s fingers have been down her throat – we are suddenly sucked into the stories of the two detectives involved, as well. Ward Hastroll, whose wife Hannah has not gotten out of bed for five months for no apparent reason, and Sam Sheppard, the Sam Sheppard, each have their own stories of marital woe.
Almost every review of Mr. Peanut references Ross’ first lines: “When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.” Which sums up the rest of the book both succinctly and inefficiently, as statements both enough and not-enough at the same time. (Just like anything that can be said about marriage, really.)
If the plot and the characters sound a tad challenging, it’s because they are. Ross is a gifted writer, but even his talent might not have carried this book. What kept me reading – indeed, what has already made me describe Mr. Peanut as “great” – were the sections where he broke down marriage, as much as anyone can.
‘She said, “Prove it.”
“That it’s going to improve.”
It required nothing miraculous of him. He simply had to be there, for Marilyn and for his son. There, as in inhabiting his life at home. There, as in treating now first. On a practical level it was the simplest thing: He took the boy off his wife’s hands when he returned from work. When she asked him for something – a favor, a last-second errand, or help with a household chore – he gave it. When she came to bed they talked. But spiritually and psychologically it was entirely different and required what couldn’t be faked: he was there. Whereas before he’d seen his wife and son as a kind of encroachment on his life, their needs as something that halved and rehalved the distance between him and what he wanted, and he’d therefore at every turn resisted every little thing asked of him, now he did the opposite. And he could feel the small joy it added to everything, and which in turn added accrued interest. It was so simple, really.’
That it’s not that simple - not that simple at all - is what sets this subtle, circuitous, and curious novel apart, all on its own.
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This book was published by Knopf in June 2010. For more information, including an excellent Q & A, visit the author’s website. And if you click the IndieBound logo below to buy your own copy of Mr. Peanut, you’ll support independent booksellers, me, and your own loving and murderous marriage.
FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I borrowed from the public library.