by Adam Ross
Reviewed by Benjamin Moser
Her plight was dire; so, too, are the lives in Adam Ross's first novel, Mr. Peanut (Knopf, $25.95). "No matter what they did, David thought, no matter how hard they tried, they'd always come back to this place of disappointment," Ross writes, and this place -- where one can carefully nurture inexplicable grudges; starve oneself to the point of fainting; fantasize in lurid detail about offing one's spouse; and nearly throw oneself, in a fit of spite, off a Hawaiian cliff -- is marriage.
The novel revolves around two couples, one fictional and one historical, both of which include a man who may or may not have killed his wife. First are (the invented) David Pepin, a successful computer-game designer, and his fat wife, Alice, who is highly allergic to a whole range of foods and who is soon dispatched by a peanut. Did David force it down her throat, knowing the consequences? The second are Marilyn and Sam Sheppard, who were at the center of a real-life "trial of the century" drama in the Fifties, when the pregnant Marilyn was found dead in her bedroom. Did Dr. Sam bash her head in?
"Perhaps it's simply the dual nature of marriage, the proximity of violence and love," one character muses. This is a dubious and often tiresome thematic underpinning, and the novel's overambitious plot struggles to cohere. Ross's dialogue sometimes reveals an awareness of this predicament. One can imagine him sitting at his desk, scratching his head: "'What's it about?' 'It's about a man who may or may not have killed his wife.' Mobius smiled. 'Uh-huh.' 'But I'm stuck.' 'Of course.' 'I don't know what happens next.' 'You need an editor.' 'It's more like a plot.'"
Despite all this, Mr. Peanut crackles with life. Ross's long set pieces -- Alice's miscarriage on a plane to Hawaii, Marilyn Sheppard's dreams of trysting with her hunky housecleaner -- reveal his talent for conjuring characters and imagining scenes that, like good short stories, could stand nobly by themselves.
Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.