November, 2010: Octavia Frost is in New York to deliver a slender new manuscript to her agent. Comprising revised final chapters of her seven variously successful novels, this "revolutionary" new project has given Octavia "an opportunity to take a tour of old haunts" and retool her conclusions to give different endings for her fictional creations.
On getting into a taxi, her attention is snagged by a news crawl that shockingly overturns her own most unsatisfactory outcome: "Pareidolia singer Milo Frost arrested for the murder of girlfriend Bettina Moffett".
It's nine years since she has met her 27-year-old rock-star son, and four since he cut off communication, seemingly incensed by what he read into one of his mother's novels. Now she abandons her manuscript to fly to San Francisco and try to do, however unwelcome, what a mother must: put aside history and comfort her child in distress.
The substance of Carolyn Parkhurst's sharp and engaging third novel is a gleaming alloy of mystery and confessional. Milo was arrested the morning after he passed out on the couch in his mansion, unable to remember more than scraps of the previous night's row with his girlfriend, whose blood covers his clothes and whose body was found in their bedroom, her skull shattered by blows with a dumbbell. It doesn't look good.
Steady revelations about the tangle of Milo's relationships keep pace with a gradual seepage of the family back-story. Octavia lets slip that her husband, Mitch, and Milo's younger sister, Rosemary, both died in tragic circumstances. Parkhurst cleverly manages this slow drip of background detail. Octavia's flashbacks mirror Milo's addled recollection in an emotionally forensic investigation.
Guilt and (mostly parental) responsibility emerge as powerful themes to unite the two traumas of a well-paced and convincingly populated novel. Parkhurst's decision to splice in Octavia's original and alternative endings, however, is less successful. Groping after a benign comfort with little intrinsic interest, her revised endings congest the flow of Parkhurst's drama with contrived counterpoint. While Octavia may yearn to supplant emotional hurt, these snippets make up a literary scaffold that adds neither meaning nor strength to a confident novel that has plenty of narrative muscle and scant need for further artifice.
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