STARRED REVIEW
February 2015

The impact of youthful transgressions

By Jan Ellison
Review by
O. Henry Prize winner Jan Ellison’s debut novel is a puzzle with the outside pieces finished. Reading it is like compulsively fitting all those revealing middle pieces together. Annie Black, a happily married 40-something San Francisco businesswoman, delves into her careless youth after her 21-year-old son is injured in a car accident. Spinning a tale of the three drunken months she spent in Europe in 1989, she demonstrates how the past can shape the future.
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O. Henry Prize winner Jan Ellison’s debut novel is a puzzle with the outside pieces finished. Reading it is like compulsively fitting all those revealing middle pieces together. Annie Black, a happily married 40-something San Francisco businesswoman, delves into her careless youth after her 21-year-old son is injured in a car accident. Spinning a tale of the three drunken months she spent in Europe in 1989, she demonstrates how the past can shape the future.

Disillusioned after her alcoholic father abandons the family for another woman, 19-year-old Annie leaves her meager hometown prospects for Europe, securing an office job in London. There, she quickly develops a drinking problem and, when her married boss, Malcolm, takes a shine to her, she gets entangled in a mess of midlife crises and misplaced desires. Malcolm’s wife—with his encouragement—is sleeping with charismatic photographer Patrick. Malcolm hopes Annie will become his own romantic companion. Annie, however, falls hopelessly for the selfish but charming Patrick. Things come to a peak over a fateful Christmas in Paris. When an old photograph arrives in Annie’s mailbox in 2011, she learns that ripples from this event have fanned out for two decades, and now they threaten her marriage and her son’s life.

Annie’s ruminations on past sins and the nature of memory are thoughtful, even when the reliability of her narration is suspect. She is often extremely unlikable. But for much of the book, she is also very young. She reminds us of the times we’ve been selfish, the times we’ve been foolish, the selves we think we’ve escaped. Skillfully weaving two plots, Ellison unveils the details of each, piece by tantalizing piece. Hard to put down despite its heavy tone, A Small Indiscretion asks a big question: Should Annie be forgiven? Should we be forgiven? Fans of family-themed literary fiction will find it compelling.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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A Small Indiscretion

A Small Indiscretion

By Jan Ellison
Random House
ISBN 9780812995442

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