For those of a contemplative mind, Stacey D’Erasmo’s novel The Complicities is full of lingering questions. What’s with the whale, you might ask yourself. Or, who else besides the narrator, Suzanne Flaherty, is complicit here? What does it even mean to be complicit? And if you are complicit and everything basically falls apart, what kind of restitution is needed or possible?
The story begins with Suzanne arriving in Chesham, Massachusetts, a lower-middle-class beach town on Cape Cod, not too long after her divorce. Her former husband, Alan, has been imprisoned after committing large-scale financial crimes. Despite the apparent similarities, Suzanne should not be compared to the wife of Bernie Madoff; this is a quieter, more inward tale.
Rejected by her college-age son, who feels that she’s abandoned the family, Suzanne takes an online class in massage, frames the program’s certificate on the wall of her drab apartment, starts seeing clients and feels a genuine power and sensitivity flowing through her hands. When a rare right whale beaches itself nearby, Suzanne gets deeply involved with its rescue. This is not Captain Ahab’s white whale, but the novel’s three sections refer to it provocatively: “The Whale’s Breath,” “Whalefall” and “The Whale’s Bones.”
D’Erasmo is admirably skillful in moving the story backward and forward through time. For a while, Suzanne is in contact with the other two important women in Alan’s life. Lydia, an artist and paralegal who, a decade earlier, survived a car crash and still has burn scars on half her face, becomes Alan’s second wife after he is paroled early. Alan calls her “the girl with hell in her eyes.” Sylvia, Alan’s mother, surrendered her legal rights to him when he was a child. Now she’s a Walmart employee with a mathematical gift for gambling. She imagines finding Alan, but does little to do so.
All of these intriguing and sharply drawn characters fudge little bits of their past. Is that important? Should we believe Alan has reformed, or is his new venture in housing development just another scam? Does a little white lie matter? Is this, as Suzanne says at one point, “the way damage moves, the way it seeps and wanders”?
D’Erasmo’s descriptions are vivid. Her similes and metaphors are often explosive. Of the beached right whale, Suzanne thinks, “The leviathan looked like another sun, fallen to earth on the broad, flat beach.” And as Sylvia enjoys the presence of a very quiet man, she thinks, “If talk were rain, he was like a cactus.”
Full of small mysteries that deserve lengthy discussions with well-read friends, The Complicities is a superb book club selection.