Elevate Difference

Laura Rider's Masterpiece

Jane Hamilton's latest novel has a delightful premise. Laura and Charlie Rider own a Midwestern landscape business, for which Laura writes a newsletter. Charlie is a fantastic lover, a man whose equal doses of femininity and masculinity make his understanding of women profound. Laura suffers from “sexual fatigue,” and after twelve years of marriage, she has decided to stop sleeping with Charlie.

Jenna Faroli, the host of Milwaukee Public Radio's Jenna Faroli Show, has recently moved to Laura and Charlie's town of Hartley. Laura has always greatly admired Jenna. In fact, she has told Charlie that Jenna has “the biggest cranium on the planet.” When Laura meets Jenna at the Hartley Garden Club, she is awe struck, and decides Jenna would be a good person for Charlie to befriend. Laura has always dreamed of writing a novel, and she imagines that if she could bring Charlie and Jenna together, she would have real-life inspiration for the characters in her novel, and at the same time, she would be relieved of the sexual guilt she carries for not sleeping with her very sexual husband.

Hamilton's premise is intriguing, her characters quirky, and the setting is charming. But Laura Rider's Masterpiece seems to barely skim the surface of the complications that might arise from such an unusual triangle. Hamilton uses an omniscient narrator who follows all three main characters. This device might have been more successful had Hamilton not written such a brief novel. Coming in at merely 214 pages, the book doesn't quite give us the chance to know any of the characters well as we move quickly back and forth between them.

There are far too many oddities to be contained within these few pages. Charlie believes he saw a UFO when he was a teenager, and he and Jenna first meet when they see bobbing lights in the night sky. Charlie tells her about the Silver People he saw as a teenager. Jenna, who doesn't believe in UFOs, is taken with Charlie's story nonetheless. The Silver People are referenced frequently when Charlie and Jenna begin an email correspondence, yet ultimately, they serve as nothing more than a red herring in Masterpiece's plot. In addition, Laura's book idea disappears almost completely from the novel, along with the Silver People, while Charlie and Jenna pursue their off-beat romance.

Hamilton's prose is at times simply stunning. Early in the novel, when she is trying to think of ways to bring Charlie and Jenna together, Laura remembers that Charlie has Jenna's e-mail address: “Laura, thinking of that, closed her eyes and saw all at once a small opening, as if in the distance. A prick of light. It was the warm, well-lit tunnel of cyberspace, and she could hear it, too, hear the scurrying, the hum of the channel that would connect Jenna and Charlie.” Masterpiece is peppered with such illuminating passages. The various threads of the plot are all, in themselves, rich ideas, but the story and the characters are deserving of fuller treatment. Ultimately, Laura Rider's Masterpiece leaves the reader wanting more.

Written by: Natasha Bauman, July 29th 2009