It takes only a week for the Sterling household to crumble and collapse in Canadian writer Cumyn's first novel to be published in the U.S. The Sterlings are ordinary members of the educated middle class living in Ottawa, but turmoil lurks beneath their surface calm. Bob Sterling, a professor of literature specializing in Edgar Allan Poe, is secretly obsessed with women's underthings; Julia, Bob's much younger wife and former student, is quietly losing her mind from the exhaustion of caring for Matthew, their two-year-old, and her mother, Lenore, who is tormented by Alzheimer's. Lenore's illness and Bob's lechery cause the fall of the house of Sterling, both literally (Lenore, under the delusion that she is in prison, starts a fire and burns down the house) and figuratively. Bob gets involved with Sienna Chu, a long-legged coed who exudes erotic promise and writes incomprehensible verse, and is coaxed by her into donning female lingerie and a red dress in his office. Even more foolishly, Bob lets Sienna photograph him, an obviously risky act in the age of the Internet, as Bob soon discovers. Cumyn moves his story along briskly, leaping from one perspective to another. His skill with voices is akin to mimicry: he can transition from Lenore's Bosch-like inner life to Bob's seedier consciousness without a false step. The result is an unclassifiable novel that possesses the precision of a mathematical theorem, the hilarity of a Marx Brother's skit and the pathos of confession. (Jan.)
Forecast:Two of Cumyn's previous novels were prizewinners in Canada, which should make it easier for this book to win review attention here.
Release date: 01/01/2003