Laura Rider’s Masterpiece, Jane Hamilton’s sixth novel, recounts an Internet-era ménage à trois involving a married coupleLaura Rider and her husband Charlie Riderand radio talk-show host Jenna Faroli, a recent addition to the rural Wisconsin community of greater Hartley who has matched wits with public figures from presidential candidate Al Gore to musician Sting. Ultimately, the tangled Rider-Rider-Faroli triangle leads to an accidental, but painful, public revelation of Charlie and Jenna’s clandestine relationship. While Hamilton’s previous five novels, beginning with The Book of Ruth (1988) and continuing through When Madeline Was Young (2006), contain comic elements, by and large their tone is dark, reflective of the author’s focus on personal and familial tragedies.
Typical of Hamilton’s oeuvre is the recognition that acts of infidelity, abuse, and defamation have serious consequences. Central characters in previous novels bear the physical and emotional scars of trauma survivors. Essential questions about relationships between the individual, the married couple, the family, and the community are posed in Hamilton’s works, and although Laura Rider’s Masterpiece is written in the comic mode, such questions still surface.
Though populated with quirky characters, the novel explores the nebulous natures of truth and falsehood. Laura and Charlie Rider are a playful couple whose imaginations lead them to invent stories about their family petssuch as Maine Coon cat Polly having a prom dateand to collaborate on Charlie’s ardent e-mails to a married woman. Additionally, husband and wife send separate missives, but always under the guise of Charlie’s moniker. When Charlie tells new resident Jenna Faroli about the Silver People, aliens who abducted him in his teens, she receives his personal truth with an equal mixture of skepticism and intrigue. Later, when Charlie invents a family whose members dwell in his kneecap and recounts their adventures, Jenna, now his lover, joins in and continues the story line in a return e-mail. Some deceptions appear to be harmless entertainments, but others breach the social contract that mandates honesty as a precursor to trust. Hamilton suggests that fiction is a type of lie that has the potential to entertain (and on occasion to instruct) and that humans by their nature are storytellers. She thus raises the question of to what extent individuals should be allowed to concoct mistruths in order to narrate their life stories and the life stories of others. She provides no pat answer to this question.
Critics have tended to note the comic tone of Laura Rider’s Masterpiece to the exclusion of serious issues raised by its tale of covert romance and public exposure. Chief among these issues is the difficulty of maintaining personal privacy in an era of mass correspondence. A simple keyboard error can make private information available for public consumption. When a fatigued and multitasking Laura inadvertently inserts an erotic e-mail, penned by Jenna and intended for Charlie’s readership alone, into the front section of her nursery newsletter, the love life of a radio celebrity becomes titillating community news. With the press of a button, private wordsin which Jenna ruminates on Charlie’s sexual techniqueare delivered to more than six hundred online subscribers.
Jenna is humiliated, Charlie is infuriated, and Laura is oddly amused by the mishap. Although Laura has revealed her husband to be a philanderer and brought ridicule to a respected interviewer, when her error is revealed to her, she laughs. For Laura, the mistake makes an amusing story, material for the writing workshop that she attends at the Bear Claw Resort.
Hamilton writes about the complications that accompany acts based on human desire. While Charlie and Laura are coconspirators in their seduction of Jenna, they woo her in order to satisfy disparate needs. Denied his wife’s body after years of connubial contentment (Laura claims that Charlie’s passion has worn her out), the sexually prolific Charlie seeks a replacement lover. Having barred sexual activities from her own life, Laura dreams of creating them for others. For Laura, instigating an affair between her husband and Jenna is a form of...
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