State of the Union, by Douglas Kennedy

Romantic rebel to desperate housewife
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Hannah Buchan is a classic Kennedy heroine. A disappointment to her parents (her father is a famous campus activist, her mother once dated de Kooning), Hannah marries straight out of college, and settles down with her nice-guy doctor in small-town Maine. One year into domestic bliss, and she receives an unexpected visit from one of her father's protégés, "cute radical" Tobias Judson. With husband Dan conveniently out of town, she's faced with a life-changing decision: another early night with Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, or 24 hours of wild sex with the bearded Tobias.

As you might expect, Hannah's first and last marital transgression ends in disaster. Not only does Tobias prove himself a love rat, but a man on the run from the Feds for his involvement with the militant revolutionary group, the Weather Underground. From playing Emma Bovary, Hannah is suddenly cast in the role of Emma Goldman - driving Tobias over the border to Canada in her electric-orange Volvo.

Hannah's break for the hills signals an abrupt change in the novel's narrative tempo. Straying beyond the picket fence, Kennedy, once a thriller writer, introduces us to a new landscape of city morgues, car chases and Christmas Eve showdowns.

When we next meet Hannah, 30 years on, her comfortable life with Dan (now a respected Portland surgeon) is set to implode. Their grown-up daughter, Lizzie, has gone missing in Boston and, somewhere in Middle America, the born-again Christian Tobias Judson is penning a kiss-and-tell memoir about his years as a revolutionary beatnik.

Blockbusters can disappoint with their lack of emotional intelligence, but Kennedy's novels are an honourable exception. By an accumulation of personal history and circumstantial detail (we are always kept abreast of Hannah's exact salary and preferred radio station) his characters emerge as flesh-and-blood creations. The novel's closing set piece, in which Hannah comes head to head with America's evangelical right, is pure cinema, but provides the climatic resolution that we've been waiting for.

Pitching his narrative voice somewhere between John Irving and Desperate Housewives, Kennedy gets away with some obvious platitudes about marriage, growing older, and even the meaning of life. But he has shown us such a good time in the process that we're left feeling comforted and entertained rather than short-changed.

Comments