cover image THE KING IN THE TREE: Three Novellas

THE KING IN THE TREE: Three Novellas

Steven Millhauser, . . Knopf, $23 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-375-41540-1

There is nothing lighthearted about love, implies Millhauser, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Martin Dressler, in these three dark and feverishly rich novellas. While he stops short of cynicism, Millhauser's take on romance is a dark one. An excitable widow leads the reader on a tour of her house—apparently being offered for sale—in the harrowing "Revenge." As she moves from room to room, the story of her husband's extramarital affair unfolds, and it gradually becomes clear that the widow's monologue is addressed to her husband's lover—for whom she has a sinister surprise in store. "An Adventure of Don Juan" finds the famous philanderer, bored with a lifetime of easy conquests, leaving the Continent for a change of scenery on his friend's English estate, where he will experience unrequited desire for the first time. Millhauser retells the tragedy of Tristan and Isolde in the title story. Narrator Thomas of Cornwall, counselor to Isolde's cuckolded husband, King Mark, looks on in silent disapproval as Isolde and Tristan blithely carry on their affair, causing the king to suffer a storm of competing, paralyzing emotions. Millhauser's portrayal of fools and self-made victims is unblinking and unsentimental. He is particularly attuned to the ways that people fall out of love. The narrator of "Revenge" describes the moment when she realized her marriage was in trouble: "I asked myself, am I happy? And I felt a little pause." Millhauser is at his best dramatizing these moments of ambivalent hesitation and the disastrous effect they have on the "fellowships of two." Though he covers time-honored territory, Millhauser's precision, coupled with his brave imagination, makes these stories as smart and fresh as they are grim. (Feb. 24)