Kate Christensen trained her shrewd eye on a young woman's (mis)adventures in her first novel, In the Drink (2000), and on women over 65 in her most recent, The Great Man (2007). Her new book turns to the emotionally turbulent years in between, depicting two 45-year-old friends in the throes of full-blown midlife crises.
Psychotherapist Josie Dorvillier and rock star Raquel Dominguez flee their respective dilemmas and head to Mexico, where they indulge in bouts of drinking, smoking, and (in Josie's case) a hot extramarital fling. But the author is hardly out to show us a good time.
Narrator Josie is so honest that readers may not like her much at first, when she introduces herself "flirting with a man I had just met" at a Christmas party. Spying a sexy, still "young-ish" woman across the room—it's her, in a mirror's reflection—Josie suddenly decides she's too good for the "old man" her husband, Anthony, has become.
So far, Josie seems utterly self-involved. Not until she confronts Anthony the next day do we understand her off-putting behavior. As Josie tries to talk to Anthony, he doesn't even put down his book until she announces she wants a separation; his response is then so weirdly matter-of-fact that it's clear their marriage has been smothering her.
Raquel, Josie's college roommate, has been caught in an affair with Jimmy Black—a much younger TV star who happens to have a pregnant girlfriend—and she is being vilified online as "a horny senior citizen on the prowl." Fleeing the media circus for Mexico City, Raquel calls Josie and suggests they meet up there. It seems like the perfect opportunity, and venue, for both women to regroup.
Josie's six-day sojourn plunges her into a world of risk, art, and self-indulgence. Raquel takes her friend bar-hopping and sightseeing; they meet a one-armed artist named David in the Zócalo, and he introduces them to a circle of bohemians—among them Felipe, a painter for whom Josie experiences a swooning lust she hasn't felt in years. Josie finds herself vulnerable and open to new possibilities in thrilling but unsettling ways.
Raquel, meanwhile, is in bad shape. Out of the limelight for ten years after a bout with drugs, she's been working on a comeback album that could be torpedoed by the bad publicity surrounding her affair. But that's not the real problem: "If my album had been great," Raquel admits, "I never would have fallen for someone like Jimmy Black. My new album is not good enough. I know it, and it's killing me." In fact, she's killing herself; Josie realizes with horror that Raquel is back on heroin.
Christensen doesn't provide comforting resolutions to the dilemmas raised in her hard-edged narrative, which shares many virtues with her previous novels: strong situations, compelling plot development, accessible prose. Instead, she offers trenchant observations on everything from society's punitive attitude toward older women's sexuality to a "pulp B-movie all gussied up as great art." (No Country for Old Men, in case you were wondering.)
Trouble doesn't gussy itself up as great art, but it's hard to dress it down: It is smart, satisfying fiction.
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor of The American Scholar, reviews books frequently for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post. She previously reviewed After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age on AARP The Magazine Online.