Edgarian’s Novel Portrays Married Life among the Stressed and Well-to-Do


 

By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

Carol Edgarian’s first novel, Rise the Euphrates, dealt with three generations of Armenian-American women. Her second work of fiction is planted firmly in middle-class, American San Francisco, with side trips to Boston and Cambridge, and there is only the slightest trace of Armenian influence in this novel.

There’s faint echo here of Tolstoy’s famous opening sentence to his novel, Anna Karenina. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Edgarian begins her story with the assertion, “The modern marriage has two states, plateau and precipice….” But here it must be said, the comparison between Tolstoy and Edgarian ends.

Set in the very recent present (references to President Obama and Hillary Clinton abound), this is the story of a couple, Lena (Helena) Rusch, and her husband, Dr. Charles Pepper, a surgeon-turned- entrepreneur who is developing a hot robotic technique that will permit long-distance surgery. The Peppers, both in their 40s, are parents of a son, 4-year-old Theo, and a surviving daughter, Willa, who would have been an identical twin if her sister had not died at birth. Willa is afflicted with breathing problems and requires special care.

The family is under considerable stress as Charlie has abandoned his career as a doctor to work on his robotic invention, which needs serious funding. Lena, formerly a television producer for PBS, has accepted that she must stay home to care for her ailing daughter.

The novel is fluidly plotted and fleshed out with minor characters, Lena’s sister, her best friend and her mother, Beverly.

The counterpart couple to the youngish Peppers are Cal and Ivy Rusch, a couple in their late 70s (Cal is 80), who have more or less seen it all and had it all. Cal is a brusque and over-the-top successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist who has backed many start-ups that panned out. Ivy plays the role of a supportive but not submissive wife to Cal, who runs his business and his partners with an iron hand. They are very rich, the sort of people who can throw a party for their daughter and fiancé that costs $1 million and offer a menu that includes Scharffen Berger souffle and Grey Goose crantinis. (Edgarian is nothing but sharp on the details that define the wealthy who know how to shop with an eye to what’s trendy.)

There is a back-story to the relationship between the two couples. Cal was the brother of Lena’s father and once involved him in a financial scheme that left him broke. He died not long after and Lena has never forgiven the betrayal. But, it’s Cal who has the money to back Charlie’s robotic scheme and so when he offers Charlie the seed money to get his project up and running, Lena can do nothing but fume.

In spite of some stated challenges, the compromised daughter, the difficulty paying bills, the fact that they live in a shabby pink bungalow, the Peppers are never in any real danger of going under. They drive a Saab, Theo gets into a good nursery school, they employ a Dominican nanny, whom they treat with political correctness, giving her clothes, helping her to learn English.

And the Rusches are bolstered by an entire retinue of servants.

While Charlie and Lena have intense conversations about their troubles, the true emotions are difficult to discern, presented as they are in a fraught rhetoric that often seems clichéd and hyperbolic. For example, “Their kind of love wouldn’t just end. It was harder to break than that. They’d acted unpardonably, selfishly, and, in her case, shabbily, and the world didn’t stop and they didn’t kill each other and as yet, they didn’t quit. Their punishment was worse. They would go on.”

And, yes, Lena does act shabbily, indulging in a one-night stand with Alessandro (“San”), an Italian Casanova, who comes back into her life because he is working on business ventures with Cal.

Although the novel moves forward at a good clip, Edgarian misses some chances to write scenes that might have added to the dramatic impact of the story. When Charlie and Lena decide to separate temporarily, the reader learns of this important decision only in a throwaway line. More might have been revealed of the couple’s inner lives if such a scene had been shown rather than told.

The events that move the story to its conclusion are the financial crash of 2008 and the illnesses of Cal and Ivy. Both develop cancer, and while there are some surprises and bumpy ground to cover before the novel comes to its conclusion, all’s well that ends well.

An early reviewer compared this novel to the work of Jonathan Franzen, who has chronicled the lives of upper-middle-class dysfunctionals. Edgarian’s work is closer to that of Judith Krantz, a highly- successful writer of popular, commercial fiction, (Scruples, Princess Daisy, Mistral’s Daughter) who also sets her stories in California and who has a command of the lifestyle of the rich if not the famous.

Great literature this is not. It’s a good airport read and may appeal particularly to readers in their 30s and 40s who relate easily to the Peppers’ trials and tribulations. The novel does not escape a certain self-congratulatory tone, which may grate on some readers’ ears. However, Edgarian is writing in a vein that could very well gain her a wide audience.

 

Three Stages of Amazement.
By Carol Edgarian. Scribner. 2011. 295 pp.
$25. ISBN: 978-1-4391-9830-8