Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica is narrated by the protagonist, Alison Owen, a once-successful fashion model who is now forty-six years old, lonely, and living off disability checks supplemented by part-time work cleaning her friend John’s office. The setting oscillates between the twenty-first-century present and the past, via Alison’s unchronological memories.

The novel begins with a scene from her childhood in New Jersey, where her mother read to young Alison and her two sisters “a story about a wicked little girl”: a beautiful girl’s poor mother sent her child to live with more affluent adults, and one day the girl’s rich patrons told her to take a loaf of bread to her mother. The path was muddy, and the vain child dropped the bread into the mud and stepped on it so she wouldn’t ruin her shoes. She sank into a bog full of demons and was tortured until an innocent girl saved her. The narrator recollects that when she was little, the story terrified her, but then she “forgot about it for a long time.”

Narration then shifts to the present and Alison’s apartment in San Rafael, California, where she lives alone. She had to go on disability because she was injured in a car accident, and a quack doctor made her arm and shoulder worse. Alison assuages the pain with codeine even though she knows the drug is toxic for her liver, which is wracked by hepatitis C. Throughout the novel, Alison’s physical pain flares up and seems debilitating, but it does not compare to her emotional struggles. She is plagued by thoughts of Veronica Ross, her friend who died of AIDS. Despite this bleak premise, many portraits of cruelty, and moments of shocking vulgarity throughout the book, the beauty of some of Gaitskill’s images and the soulful contemplations of her protagonist prepare readers for the redemption and glimmers of hope to come.

As Alison walks through the pouring rain to John’s office, her guilt haunts her. She was not with Veronica when she died—no one was—and even when the two were together, Alison did not fully understand Veronica, nor was she always an ideal friend.

The novel takes place in one day, but the narrator’s memories span decades. When Alison was sixteen, she ran away from home to live in San Francisco, as many teenagers did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She did not leave home because her parents were abusive or unloving. In fact, she and her father shared an obsession with music, though their obsessions were very different in nature. Her father’s older brother was killed in World War II, and he never fully recovered from this loss. Alison’s father listened to songs from the early 1940s constantly, not only as a way to mourn his brother and find comfort but also because he had difficulty moving forward. Alison, on the other hand, wanted “to live like music” of the current time, which she thought was like a fluid expansion of endless pleasure.

While Alison lived in San Francisco, a German ex-model occasionally stayed in the hostel where she lived, and Alison was the only person in the building who didn’t notice the German woman’s beauty. Ironically, Alison became a model a year later. An “agent” named Gregory Carson saw her on the street and invited her to his office for a photo shoot, where he molested her. Alison consented to having sex with him, but she soon realized that Carson was only using her and would not advance her career. John, the man whose office Alison now cleans, photographed the...

(The entire section is 1423 words.)