Taking fairly standard ingredients—unlikely lovers, a doomed romance—Eberstadt (When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of Earth) achieves a roil of dark effects in her fourth novel. Gwen Lewis is the model of today's successful single urban woman: at 31 she's on the go as the director of an institute working to democratize post–Soviet Russia, she's wealthy and beautiful and she spends the little time she's not working meeting up with her equally glamorous friends in Manhattan hot spots. When she meets Gideon Wolkowitz, a leftist Jewish puppeteer, her comfortable world is turned upside down. Their strong attraction to each other—bordering on obsession and based primarily on sex—seems initially fueled by their differences; when Gwen becomes pregnant and they marry, however, these differences begin to undo them. Sex, money, religion and class all play a role—in fact, in Eberstadt's hands, they wreak havoc. If it seems obvious from the get-go that Gwen and Gideon will eventually break up, the surprise is in the precise awfulness of the details—a train wreck in very slow and painful motion. Despite the occasional archetypal flatness of the principals (an effect of the intruding authorial voice, which maneuvers them around as if they were puppets themselves) and the occasional tendency toward overblown prose (especially in the sex scenes), the author's gift for acutely rendered detail captivates. The separate New York worlds Gwen and Gideon inhabit are illustrated not only through their interactions but with seemingly innocent scene-setting contrasts: the careful groupings of nannies and cellphone mothers in Central Park, for instance, versus the scrappy Lower East Side volunteers at the puppet theater. If the story is one that at first blush sounds familiar and even predictable, Eberstadt's no-mercy approach is unique and harrowing. (Sept.)
Forecast: Readers looking for an antidote to the bromides of chick lit will find this just the thing—Eberstadt tells the other side of the story.