By Ekta R. Garg
April 13, 2011
Rated: Bypass it
Written by co-founder, editor, and publisher of Narrative magazine, Carol Edgarian’s second novel Three Stages of Amazement released last month to great anticipation. The story is set in the present day about a family struggling financially and emotionally to hold it together in our current economic climate.
Charlie Pepper is a surgeon who gives up his lucrative career at Mass General in Boston to move his family to San Francisco in the hope of making the next big medical breakthrough happen. His wife, Lena Rusch, stays at home with their son, Theo, and younger daughter, Willa, a preemie who was the only survivor at birth of a pair of twins. Lena works for her best friend doing something in public relations, but it’s never clear exactly what she does—only that she can’t do it because of the demands on her time from Willa’s health.
Edgarian’s novel tries really hard to elevate itself by the storyline she has proposed. Lena and Charlie live in a small home they can’t afford within walking distance of Lena’s ridiculously wealthy uncle and aunt. While Lena and Charlie are scrambling to pay their mortgage, Cal and Ivy Rusch hire Norah Jones to play at their daughter’s lavish engagement party (to which Charlie and Lena accept an invitation, despite their strong negative feelings against the elder Rusches.)
Most of the novel deals with Lena’s emotional state—how she views the world and tries desperately to remember that her husband loves her, even though he’s MIA for most of their lives. While some of her emotions are believable and possibly might even be justified, other moments just don’t ring true. They seem contrived to make the novel appear larger than what it really is.
One of the biggest problems I had with this book was the entire premise of Charlie’s dream. He’s a surgeon chasing the ideas of a young, twenty-something entrepreneur. Because of his job security it makes sense he wouldn’t necessarily be in the center of the loop about the impending economic downturn in 2008, but I find it hard to believe he would be so completely out of the loop that he wouldn’t realize his proposed business venture would have a difficult time getting off the ground.
As the wife of a physician myself, I also find it hard to believe that Charlie would be so willing to throw all caution—and his career—to the wind and start over after having established himself at Mass General. Doctors, once they get set in the groove of their jobs, often don’t like to move. They like to stay put because they know the source of their lifestyles and their extravagance is the patients they treat during all those long hours.
To a certain degree, they also enjoy the respect and prestige that comes with their positions; excellent physicians are good with their hands and their heads, and there is just the touch of an egoistic nature about them. It’s hard to imagine Charlie overcoming his ego so easily to jump blindly into something, especially if he’s working at a prestigious hospital like Mass General.
I understand, too, that the recession has affected everyone, but physicians have a certain job security that other people don’t. Even if a free-spirited physician like Charlie did exist, his and Lena’s despair is hard to accept. If the economy is going belly up, then it makes economic sense to go back to something that pays well until things settle down.
Why is Charlie walking through quicksand to make his dream a reality? If he and Lena need money so badly, why doesn’t he go back to the OR for a while, earn some money, and then use that to fund their lives so they aren’t scrambling for every last cent? Also, the narrative mentions that Charlie flies several times between San Francisco and Boston to make presentations at Mass General in pursuit of his dreams. Who is paying for all those flights? Why can’t he make his presentations via Skype or some other online service? For someone who is trying to push the boundaries of technology, it doesn’t seem that Charlie is in touch with it at all.
We don’t get answers to Charlie’s plight because we end up spending so much time with Lena and her aunt and uncle. For the most part the book oscillates between her and them, trying to point out Lena’s desolation at being the poor, married single parent and the elder Rusches’ indifference in being rich. Charlie, while important to Lena, doesn’t make enough front-and-center appearances to warrant a “main character” role.
Author Edgarian presents readers with a double tragedy in Cal and Ivy’s lives to push the story along, but it seems forced and steamrolls to the end. And at one point in the novel, Lena meets an old flame with whom she has a one-night stand despite her best intentions. Why? This dramatic device was unnecessary, and the presence of the flame—conveniently a business partner with Cal Rusch—doesn’t add anything to the novel other than a sexual outlet for Lena’s frustration.
It is also a disappointing choice for a woman who seems to be married to a man who adores her, even if he’s too busy to show it. It seems to me that if daughter Willa were really that sick all the time, Lena wouldn’t have time to focus on anyone else. But Willa’s illness, too, is vaguely approached; she’s described at one point as a limp bundle and yet shown playing and interacting at another point with no explanation in the interval as to how she got better.
Edgarian’s writing is sharp and in places made me smile or nod in appreciation, but her Three Stages of Amazement didn’t leave me in such a state.
What the ratings mean:
Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection. It’s definitely worth it!
Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.
Bypass it–Free time is precious. Don’t spend it on this book!