This debut novel is a complex read, which looks at three deeply screwed-up marriages largely from the uncomprehending standpoint of the husbands, two of whom are detectives investigating the possible murder of his spouse by the third husband. Adding a little spice to it all is the fact that one of the detectives is the former Dr. Sam Sheppard, the (in)famous real-life doctor who spent a decade in jail for the bludgeoning to death of his own pregnant wife, who was then released following a 1964 retrial for supposed lack of evidence. In Ross’ handling of the incident, which takes up a full third of his book, Sheppard has somehow become a detective, a strange and somewhat forced mechanism for weaving Sheppard’s story into the fabric of this book, but unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
Alice Pepin is a seriously unhappy woman, whose history of miscarriages and obesity are the cause of intense depression and growing alienation from her husband, who invents video games based on Escher’s puzzle-art. Alice eventually takes a lengthy leave of absence from her marriage, during which time her unmoored husband has a brief affair with an office colleague, contacts a private detective who turns out to be a contract assassin, and tries urgently to finish a novel which appears to mirror his life and includes fantasies about ways to kill his lead character’s wife. When Alice returns to her husband, only to die from ingesting peanuts to which she is severely allergic, the detectives suspect that her suicide was in fact staged, and take her husband –and eventually the contract assassin–into custody.
The Sheppard tragedy is strangely told through a reverse-interrogation of Det. Sheppard by the detained assassin. Although the true-life criminal case is well-known to many, the author uses Sheppard’s own semi-fictionalized story of serial infidelity and marital estrangement to add his own set of “insights” into the many facets of marriage. The third husband, Det. Hastrol, has the strangest marriage of all—his wife Hannah took to her bed five months ago and has refused to leave it ever since. His attempts to reason with her, to force her return to normalcy, even to starve and threaten her, are to no avail and he is at a loss to fathom her behavior. His rage over his wife colors the Pepin investigation, and for nearly the entire book, the reader is left as much in the dark over her motivations as her husband is.
Some of the time, Ross is successful at interweaving his three stories, but at other times, his scenarios appear contrived at best. His detailed and lengthy description of the Pepins’ sad and rage-filled trip to Hawaii is almost too painful to read, while Sheppard’s pre-murder conversion to loving husband stretches credulity. All in all, I found that the “brilliance” and “dazzling style” with which so many ecstatic reviewers have credited the author was far overshadowed by what I found to be a depressingly gray view of male-female relationships. Glaringly missing in all this, of course, is the women’s point-of-view, but clearly an intentional omission.