A Story of Ruined Love, With Highbrow Polemics, Too

The Furies, by Fernanda Eberstadt. Alfred A. Knopf, 452 pages, $26.

Why isn’t Fernanda Eberstadt more famous? Maybe it’s because her name, rather than tripping off the tongue, sticks phlegmily in the throat; more and more in this brand-mad era, rocketship literary success depends on a snappy byline. (If you’re a woman, of course, it helps to be both nubile and skinny.) Maybe Ms. Eberstadt remains obscure because she seems to be spending her career not “working it,” but actually working; according to Knopf’s discreet curriculum vitae, the author leads a life of presumably blissful seclusion in the French Pyrenees with her husband and two children rather than churning through the Manhattan media meat-grinder where (the irresistible Google search reveals) she was born to high-society parents, attended Brearley and worked for a spell in Andy Warhol’s Factory. There are already three weighty-sounding former novels to her credit, titles remembered but unread by this reviewer-a lapse which suddenly feels embarrassing, almost unforgivable, because Ms. Eberstadt’s latest effort, The Furies , veers pretty close to genius. The novel, about an improbable inter-class marriage and its excruciating dissolution, is harsh, bitter, unmanageable-a downright unpleasant book at times-but the unmistakable contours of genius are there nonetheless, almost close enough to grasp.

If The Furies had come out a few years ago, it would’ve probably been packaged and trumpeted as “millennial fiction,” à la Kurt Andersen’s Turn of the Century . It’s set in that too-familiar zone, mid-to-late-1990’s New York-Balthazar, Robert Clergerie and The Observer all make cameos. All the glittering decadence of that time and place is both deified (the Citicorp building is “[a]labaster white, white-whale white, unearthly. Holy .”) and reviled (“I’m lactose-intolerant, I can’t eat gluten, has become an acceptable line of conversation among people who once read Rilke and Kierkegaard.”) Those are the respective viewpoints of Gwen Lewis and Gideon Wolfowitz. She’s a chilly, moneyed, WASP career woman who specializes in Russia for a George Soros–esque philanthropist and lives a life of solitary contentment in an Upper West Side luxury high-rise called the Vanderveer; he’s Jewish, insolvent, earthy, a Lower East Side puppeteer (a metaphorically rife loser-man career-remember John Cusack in Being John Malkovich ?) whose life is “an overcaffeinated, underfunded babel of schmooze and hustle.” Gwen first espies Gideon snoozing on a bench in Central Park; then they run into each other at a farmers’ market in Moscow; and before page 50, she’s dumped her practical, boring banker-boyfriend and is involved in a soul-wrenching, primordial-soup sort of love affair, the kind that’s utterly consuming to the lovers and inexplicable to anyone else.

Gwen is against marriage in theory (most husbands she knows being “snot-nosed squirts, needy, repetitive, cavilling”), but she and Gideon will marry. She didn’t think she’d ever want children, either (the author perfectly captures the common attitude among Manhattan upper-class women that there is something unnatural, alien, unacceptable about pregnancy: it’s … just … not … modern! ), but they will conceive, joining the ranks of anxious millennial parents pushing “[b]aby carriages with superstructures fanciful as Roman chariots.” Their daughter’s name, Bella, will seem grimly prophetic; indeed, she’s a too-perfect love child doomed in some way, like Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara’s Bonnie. And because the only thing her parents have in common besides lust is that they both themselves come from broken families-members of which lurch in and out of The Furies : seething, judging and suggesting whole other novel-worlds of their own-you imagine that complications will ensue. The doubt, the sexual withdrawal, the gradual breakdown and dissolution of a romantic union, seen from opposing perspectives: It’s as fascinating as it always is in real life.

Things do happen in this book-there’s progress and regress, sideline plot developments, ancillary characters, betrayal and a truly shocking ending-but it serves mostly as a vessel for competing philosophies of nostalgia and disgust, dying-embers Communism and antiseptic late-capitalism; idealism and cynicism; faith and logic, even the merits of raising children in the country versus the city. Ms. Eberstadt seems out to prove that a “domestic” novel need not be airheaded and trivial (in the manner of Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It , say). It’s a romance novel, in a way, but also a talky novel of ideas-a resolutely, almost indignantly pro-intellectual love story. Gideon will freak out when Gwen goes shopping at a designer boutique. She’ll puke on Shabbat. Meanwhile, you may find yourself skating guiltily over long theological digressions and forays into economic policy; there’s always the sense that someone is about to quote from The New York Review of Books or launch into a harangue about Chechnya. It is, in other words, a book you can put down, take a little study break from.

But even with its overabundance of polemic-like too much balsamic vinegar- The Furies never grows sour, nor posturing, nor cold. Ms. Eberstadt is an expert, sensual and at times truly breathtaking conjurer of New York City. With short, staccato, rat-a-tat and fiercely poetic sequences, she nails rush hour in the rain; the “European-style materialism” of the new Madison Avenue; a downtown office with a view of “New Jersey, Staten Island, spread out like a whore’s pussy.”

One caveat: The actual sex scenes are not for the skeptical or the squeamish. Phrases like “the dripping silk clutch purse of her vulva” come to mind: “how her pussy melted when he entered, like the soft center of a chocolate cream,” and so forth. One can appreciate the effort to depict the underrepresented female sexual experience and still feel the overall effect is a bit too much like John Dos Passos meets Harold Robbins.

Still, Fernanda Eberstadt deserves to be as well-known as both those guys.

Alexandra Jacobs works for The Observer from Los Angeles.