It’s not often you see a character expressing empathy for the Glenn Close character in “Fatal Attraction,” and yet, that’s just what Cressida Hartley, the main character of Michelle Huneven’s new novel, “Off Course,” does.
Much like Close’s poor Alex Forrest, Cressida loves a married man who wants to stay with his wife. She doesn’t turn to bunny killing, but she’s not far off.
As this dark chronicle of an ill-fated affair opens, Cress has moved to her parents’ mountain cabin in Northern California in the early 1980s to work on her economics dissertation, an exploration of art in the marketplace that she just can’t seem to finish. Lacking a better plan for what to do with a thesis that she has lost interest in, she drifts around town, rudderless and lacking the wherewithal to note that staying here is probably not helping matters.
Cress is hardly the only person to realize, in her late 20s, that the education she’s been spending her early adulthood pursuing has left her ill-prepared to get by in the world. But an epigraph at the beginning of the book offers fair warning of what lies ahead: “If a woman in her late twenties hasn’t found an absorbing occupation and if, restless or adventurous, she begins to drift, she flirts with peril; for this is a vulnerable age, when demons present, singly and in droves, often taking the form of men.”
The word “present” is pointedly accurate, in this case. The two men Cressida gets involved with over the course of the novel do little more than present themselves to her before she welcomes them into her life. She certainly doesn’t choose them, and the men do little in the way of wooing to win her over.
Cress’s passivity is a running theme. The men choose her, then decide when they’re done with her. Even the work she eventually finds herself doing in journalism is pushed on her by a determined friend.
The first relationship, with a newly divorced man near her parents’ age, proves little more than a fling. But the second, with a married father of two who is mourning his recently deceased father, leaves Cress mired for nearly four years, despite attempts by family and friends to persuade her to move on with her life.
From the outset, this puzzling relationship seems ill-fated. As he leans in to kiss her for the first time, she’s thinking about how she would have preferred his brother. Once Quinn professes his love for her and suggests he may leave his wife, she’s hooked. And her plans to leave town and pursue a career fall by the wayside.
Quinn never really registers as worthy of such attention. He says the sorts of things expected in an extramarital affair: He’s never felt this way before; he got married too young; his wife doesn’t understand him. Even the way he drifts back and forth between his wife and Cress feels a bit familiar.
Huneven has a sharp facility with language that registers both the horror of how low Cress lets herself sink and the mundanity of it all. As unreasonable as Cress’s passion is, her inability to break free of it feels depressingly real. She knows better. She just can’t help herself.
Suffering through Cress’s unfortunate choices, or lack thereof, would be more satisfying if the ending of the novel itself were a bit more satisfying, instead of creating the sense that the book was little more than cautionary tale. Millennials, beware: Settle into career and relationships early, and avoid handsome married carpenters.