This month’s "Across the Page" features a literary thriller, a coming-of-age love story and a compelling memoir about sexual identity: Jennifer McMahon’s Dismantled, Sylvia Brownrigg’s Pages for You, and Audrey Beth Stein’s Map.
Dismantled by Jennifer McMahon (Harper)
The first thing I wanted to do when I finished Dismantled was to go back and read it again—not only because it is that good (it is), but because I wanted to chart the complex plot that Jennifer McMahon weaves in this addictive and highly suspenseful literary thriller.
Dismantled is the story of four friends who form a group of "activist artists" while students at a small, progressive art school in Vermont. Led by the manipulatively charming and dogmatic Suz, the group’s manifesto states that, "To understand the nature of a thing, it must be taken apart."
Suz holds power over all the members in a unique way: Though Henry is dating Tess, it is clear to everyone that his true love is Suz; Winnie is Suz’s lover and teeters between playing the role of victim and villain; Tess is a part of the group primarily because of Henry, and although she questions Suz’s integrity, she is also honored to be chosen as a member.
All of the Dismantlers’ antics are fraught with danger and questionable intentions (they often serve Suz’s personal vendettas rather than art), but things take a turn for the worse when Suz convinces the group to kidnap Spenser, Winnie’s arrogant and controlling ex-boyfriend who once tried and failed to gain acceptance into the group. Drunk on tequila, the four take Spenser down to the lake near the cabin where they’re living together, post-graduation. Suz’s idea is to drown him, but it’s Suz who ends up in the water, her lifeless body weighted down with stones by Henry.
The remaining three Dismantlers and Spenser never tell a soul. Ten years later, Henry and Tess’s daughter unearths pictures and journals from the Dismantlers. In an attempt to get her now-separated parents back together, Emma and her best friend send a postcard to all of the members of the group. On the back reads the Dismantlers’ manifesto.
The girls had hoped that Henry and Tess would reunite by remembering when they first got together and loved each other. Instead, the stunt sets off a series of tragic and mysterious events, including Spenser’s suicide, fires that destroy old evidence, the appearance of Emma’s imaginary friend, Danner, who may or may not be a ghost, Tess’s affair with a woman, and a genuinely shocking ending that will, as I said before, send you right back to page one in an attempt to figure out McMahon’s brilliant plotting and character work.
Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg (Picador)
Sylvia Brownrigg’s Pages for You is a story about first love and coming out. When Flannery Jansen first notices Anne Arden, an older graduate student and her Teacher’s Assistant at college, she is immediately intrigued. Instead of embracing her curiosity—which, try as she may to deny it, is fraught with attraction—Flannery runs in the complete opposite direction. And fast.
Flannery switches sections so that Anne is no longer her TA. She goes to parties at night and drinks until she can no longer remember Anne’s face. She dances with strangers, but just as things become romantic, she pulls away and retreats to the safety of her dorm.
One night, as Flannery is dancing, she opens her eyes and sees Anne across the room. The two share a dance, or several. In her hung over fog the next morning, Flannery remembers this much—but nothing more. She is terrified by what she might have revealed, what longings or confessions she may have whispered in Anne’s ear, and so, again, she does what she knows best: she withdraws.
But this time, Anne doesn’t let Flannery off so easily and a few days later, a collection of Marilyn Hacker poems, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, shows up in Flannery’s campus mailbox. After reading through the book, a collection of poems that tell the love story of two women, Flannery composes her own poem to Anne and decides to visit her in New York for Thanksgiving break, where the two finally get together.