Grove: 205 pp., $24
Christine Schutt's latest novel, "Prosperous Friends," opens, and closes, with an aging husband and wife who would rather die together so that neither would be left alone.
Their loving marriage contrasts with the less conventional relationship central to the novel between Ned, a vain but struggling writer, and Isabel, his depressed wife, who feels sick when she closes her eyes to the world but even more so when she opens them.
In abrupt scenes strung together with little context, we see this young couple's marriage dissolve in London, then Rome for a page or two, New York and finally a rickety beach house in Maine, where Isabel is "hopeful of repair."
"There may be cures to loneliness," Schutt writes, "but marriage is not one of them."
So can we only yearn for love? "Prosperous Friends" dances around this theme as the couple live out their days of cold dinners and silence, while their friends — more prosperous in love, perhaps — throw out their pride and even entertain their partners' infidelities.
Schutt leaves much unexplained, demanding the reader fill in the details. With terse sentences that read like poetry, Schutt strips each scene of excess context and cuts to the heart of the moment. Her prose evokes emotions more vital to the novel: frustration and despair juxtaposed with understanding and desire.
The characters instantly come to life with a clever turn of phrase or a well-crafted sentence: Isabel, who sees the world as through a window; Isabel's lover Clive, a not-that-famous painter who takes women up and "put[s] them down like a fork, as needed."
The same holds even for characters who pass through their lives briefly, like Ellie, "whose thoughts came out the size of beads strung together with like, like, like, like never, like what the?"
In one of many tender moments, Isabel finds solace in Clive's daughter, who tells her "you need to know what to look for in a thing that's dying to know when it's dead." So what else has she killed?, she wonders. The list unravels: The child that never was. A fling with a nameless woman. An old blind shih tzu she showed more affection to than her husband.
The author of two story collections and two previous novels, 2004 National Book Award finalist "Florida" and 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist "All Souls," Schutt keeps "Prosperous Friends" moving at a pace that livens a novel offering abstract portraits of individual lives rather than a plot-heavy narrative.
Like flipping through a diary of fleeting memories, we hope for love in one scene and breakdown with Isabel the next. In a collection of carefully thought-out moments, Schutt's haunting yet lyrical words linger long after the final page.
Ned and Isabel, now thirtysomethings — nearing 40 — eventually confront the novel's nagging questions, but the answers remain open-ended. None of the characters seem sure of the scattered pieces that define their lives, yet they come to understand "the great divide" between who you are and what you have done.