This book is a lot of book. It’s a very plot heavy book that takes place starting around 1960, primarily in and around Houston, but also takes forays into Los Angeles, Wyoming, and other places around the country. We are mostly into the young marriage of Jim and Patsy Carpenter, starting the summer before Jim is meant to start his English PhD at Rice University. Patsy is mostly along for the ride as Jim wants to further explore his interest in the rodeo photography as they slowly meander their way across the country before moving to Houston for the school year. The novel is split into four big chunks of about 200 pages each, so if you were casually reading this or had forgotten, it would be easy to forgot that Jim is the one headed to grad school as Patsy spends almost all of her bored downtime reading both primary texts of all sorts (novels, poems, and the like) as well as tackling many different secondary scholarly sources.
As the novel progresses, we find that the main tension in the novel is that as much as they do or don’t care about each other, it seems pretty clear that maybe Jim and Patsy shouldn’t have gotten married. It’s less that they have a bad relationship, but like so many relationships before both divorce and choosing not to get married came into vogue (with the addition of woman actually have a real chance at supporting themselves) so many people got married and stay married for no great reason other than a real lack of options.
The tension deepens when they get to Rice and Jim takes to a pervy hotshot professor who spends every faculty get together making passes as Patsy who does not have a defender in Jim, because he needs this man to advise his graduate work. This toxicity grows and grows until it finally boils over in the 8th month or so of Patsy’s pregnancy. That takes us about halfway through!
Like I said it’s a long book, but it’s plot forward and character forward. It’s incredibly competent of a novel and is funny and endearing and shocking at different terms. McMurtry writes in an introduction that he decided to take a whack at the grad student novel after reading Philip Roth’s Letting Go (his second), which tells a similar story, but Larry McMurtry at 35 was a better writer than Philip Roth at 28, so this is a more successful and interesting novel. Patsy is electric and alive, and the sexual and gender politics of academic life (at least as far as married male grad students and professors is concerned) is sympathetic, succinct, and thoughtful. In addition, and I didn’t realize this going in, this is an inadvertent prequel (or rather this book precedes) Terms of Endearment, so if you’ve read that or seen the movie, this is THE Patsy from that with Flap and Emma Horn in there as well.