Halfway through Rachel Basch’s third novel, The Listener, the reader gets the feeling that the title is ironic. Malcolm Dowd is a psychotherapist at the college in his town. His job is to listen; no doubt his skill at listening has saved the sanity or even the lives of the sad people who unburden themselves in his office. But when it comes to his own loved ones, Malcolm Dowd is about as deaf as a stump.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the loved ones Dowd listens to the least are the women in his life. These include his daughters Leah and Susannah; Cara, a musician who’s his off-and-on lover; and Jane, the betrayed wife of his feckless colleague. In Dowd, Basch seems to be describing the legions of men who feel astonished, annoyed and even betrayed when the women in their lives have problems, anxieties and secrets that don’t involve the men in their lives. Plus, Dowd is certain that he knows what’s best for these females—he’s a man, after all, as well as a shrink.
Fortunately for Dowd, a type of salvation might be found in his new patient, a college kid named Noah. Noah’s problems are more complex than Dowd is used to handling, and this alone is a source of fascination for the older man. Noah’s troubles force Dowd to truly attend to him. Also, the talented and exquisitely sensitive Noah is a great listener himself, especially to the women in his life: like his eccentric, if loving, mother and a Titian-haired friend who’s as conflicted as he is.
Basch is good at plumbing the preoccupations of self-obsessed middle-aged folks and quasi-incestuous New England college towns. But her take on the emotional dislocations of the millennial, not just Noah and his friends and foes, but Dowd’s somewhat embittered, somewhat spoiled daughters, is wonderfully excruciating. Clearly, this is an author who remembers her own late adolescence all too well. The result is not just writing that’s good, but writing that’s brave.