What happens when dreams don’t pan out? That’s the question that Malcolm and Jess Gephardt both face after years of marriage in Mary Beth Keane’s engrossing fourth novel.
Like her bestselling 2019 novel, Ask Again, Yes, The Half Moon is set in the fictional town of Gillam, New York, modeled after Keane’s hometown of Pearl River. While the events of Ask Again, Yes spans 40 years, The Half Moon focuses on a week or so in the Gephardts’ lives, exploring how events of the past have led to their discontent and an ultimate reckoning.
Malcolm’s lifelong dream has been to own the Half Moon, the bar where he’s worked for years. He finally does, although menacing creditors are knocking at his door, and he doesn’t have the cash to transform it the way he’d like—years of futile fertility treatments have exhausted the couple’s savings. Early in the book, he muses that “middle age was looming and he could already see the headline that would arrive with it: that a person could be extraordinarily good at something and still fail at it.” And he is good—a gregarious guy who’s got the charm to manage any situation.
Jess is a lawyer, although her heart isn’t really in her career—or anything, for that matter. After moving out and away from Malcolm, she is trying to figure out next steps. In flashbacks, we learn that she has been increasingly attracted to Neil, a divorced lawyer who is the primary caregiver of his three young children and has recently moved to Gillam. In a struggle that seems quite real, Jess desperately tries to stave off these stirrings, wondering if it’s “possible to dance at the edge of a precipice and keep dancing for the rest of your life.”
Then a blizzard descends on Gillam, paralyzing the lives of its residents and emphasizing the feelings of entrapment felt by not only Malcolm and Jess but also a host of other wonderfully portrayed characters who work in and frequent the bar. As the story unfolds, the many fascinating behind-the-scenes details about running a bar range from heartbreaking to humorous. It’s a masterful setup, laid out in a careful, intriguing way. The disappearance of one of the bar’s patrons during the storm, lends a sense of urgency to the plot and adds a layer of impending doom that plays out in both emotional and physical terms.
Keane’s down-to-earth characters in Gillam are reminiscent of Anne Tyler’s wonderfully authentic Baltimore personalities. They’ll tug your heartstrings as they try to make their way through this world with steps forward, back and sideways.