Heidi Pitlor’s riveting new domestic novel, “The Daylight Marriage,’’ opens with an ugly marital spat. An unpaid energy bill settles like a spark on the tinder of deep discontents, and soon the argument ignites core resentments. Lovell feels that his wife, Hannah, is spoiled and financially reckless, and he doesn’t understand why they haven’t made love for over a year. Hannah, in turn, considers her husband an aloof workaholic who rarely recognizes her emotional needs or those of their two children. Tempers flare, doors slam, glass shatters; the possibility of domestic violence hangs in the air.
The next afternoon Lovell is forced to leave his Cambridge office early to get the kids from school after Hannah fails to pick them up. When they get home she is not there. At first he figures she will return soon, but as the days accumulate he begins to fear darker scenarios: an accident, an abduction, something worse? The first two chapters are told from Lovell’s point of view, but just when he’s growing desperate for some news about Hannah, Pitlor flashes back in time and switches perspectives, narrating Hannah’s actions on the day she disappears. This suspenseful structure of alternating viewpoints continues throughout; one story line tracks Lovell’s rising anxiety and fumbling attempts to soothe his children, while the other follows Hannah through a seemingly innocuous morning and afternoon.
The two stories move through time at different rates. While Hannah’s experience unfolds over moments and hours, Lovell’s spans weeks and months. He files a report with the Boston Police Department and soon finds the local media camped outside his door, eager for a tragic story and happy to offer sinister speculations. He also struggles to deflect the anger of his 15-year-old daughter, who overheard snatches of her parents’ argument and blames Lovell for Hannah’s vanishing.
The novel’s structure creates both the powerful suspense of a mystery and the nuanced ambiguities of a domestic drama. Pitlor, who has written one other novel and is the series editor of “The Best American Short Stories,’’ drops ominous clues about Hannah into Lovell’s sections, eliciting in us the same dread and curiosity that he feels. These same clues heighten the tension in Hannah’s sections; knowing that her bracelet and wallet were found at Carson Beach charges her surroundings with menace and makes it impossible not to feel that something terrible is about to happen.
But alternating viewpoints achieves more than atmospheric suspense. Pitlor shows both husband and wife reflecting on the strains and intermittent joys of their long relationship. By skillfully overlaying their memories of the same past events she suggests that the truth of their marriage lies somewhere between their conflicting views.
From Hannah’s perspective, Lovell is too reasonable and predictable, a climate scientist who enjoys statistical models more than human interactions. In Lovell’s view, Hannah, who grew up wealthy on Martha’s Vineyard, has never had to work for anything. Her aimless ennui is a product of privilege. Pitlor’s subtle intertwining of perspectives captures the poignancy of a mismatched couple.
The couple’s unhappiness, however, is also partly a function of traditional gender roles. Hannah works part time at a flower shop, but her work raising the children goes largely unnoticed and unappreciated. Thinking of the other mothers in her neighborhood, she reflects that “they seemed . . . more like coworkers than friends.” Without realizing it, most of the women approach motherhood as a dreary and demanding job. When the couple’s teenage daughter criticizes the fact that women are always the ones shown cooking and cleaning in commercials, Hannah thinks the point is obvious while Lovell fails to appreciate the observation’s deep relevance to his own marriage.
Beyond the novel’s taut suspense and subtle characterization, Pitlor’s vivid prose provides an additional pleasure. She describes a conference center that “smelled of insect repellent and glue” and a baby with the aroma of “vanilla and bananas.” A weeping willow is “a mass of downward movement,” and preschoolers are “these sweet, jittery little people.” The novel’s suspense lasts right until its shocking climax, but the “messy, wonderful, excruciating lives” of its characters linger in the mind long after the last page.
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.