The Story of You, by Julie Myerson

Voices from an erotic echo-chamber
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The Independent Culture

"They say life's a series of choices, but I don't know. So far it's always been other people doing things to me." So said the female narrator of Myerson's third novel, Me and the Fat Man (1998). The heroine of her next book, Something Might Happen (2003), felt "like I'm in a dream and most of me is somewhere else". Myerson's heroines have a tendency to dissociate. Affect-less, inscrutable, dreamy, they relish being "deliciously cut off and numb and unsettled". They seem "far away", "crazy", occasionally "mad". In this, The Story of You is a familiar Myerson novel, with a heroine so mercurial she goes under two different names.

The father of her three children, and her partner of almost 20 years, is Tom, who calls her Nicole (when not calling her "funny woman" or "gorgeous"). The man to whom the book is addressed, for whom Nicole had a fatal passion when they were students, is "You". He calls her Rosy (when not calling her "foolish woman", "sweet girl" or "Mrs Poet Lady", because she's published a slim volume of verse). Both men find her "dazzling", while she is "dazzled, distressed, glad" to find them both in her life, which occurs for the first time in Paris.

She and Tom are on a romantic break when she becomes aware of the spectral presence of "You". He then appears in London, after a soul-searching email exchange, during which the susceptible pair have fallen in love. Like Tess in Something Might Happen, Nicole/Rosy has lost a child - a baby girl who died an accidental death. Like Tess, she is experienced by the men in her life as being dizzyingly childlike yet electrically sexual.

Both women embark on affairs, but Nicole/Rosy's is more intense, long-lasting and "real". After illicit meetings in a hotel, she finds herself torn between two men who adore her, one "a good man", and the other "no good". In the end the choice is of course not hers, since the not-good man - the irresistible "You" - must redeem them both by giving her up.

Myerson tells all this in a prose which comes to seem somehow wasted on her insubstantial heroine. Sentences spill into themselves in a swoon of sexual tension, which achieves a near-hallucinatory quality in the last third, where Nicole/Rosy sees an apparition of the "furious small warmth" of her dead baby girl. Sex scenes are steamy and sustained. Conversation is unpunctuated, rhythmic and driven, but ultimately uninhabited, since most things the central three characters say could be said by any one of them.

The novel's essential problem is Myerson's decision to address the book to the unnamed "You", which gives it a certain intensity but makes for a solipsistic claustrophobia: "You almost seem to be speaking to yourself. Certainly you don't seem to mind that I haven't replied. You just continue to talk". Everyone in The Story of You talks mostly to and about themselves, which makes it easy to believe, but hard to care, that they are doomed never to connect.

Sheena Joughin's novel 'Swimming Underwater' is published by Doiubleday