Every year I read through piles of excellent new novels released from solid writers. Among those excellent books, there are some that hardly stay with me two weeks after finishing them, even if I completely enjoyed the reading experience. The novels I do recall in some detail are the ones that in some way make a connection beyond just a surface-level emotional response. In her debut novel, The Actor, Beth Hunter McHugh manages this by wonderfully evoking a setting that feels familiar to me.
The Actor focuses on the year following David Birch's abandonment of his wife, Nora, and their two daughters to go live with another man in New York City. Set in 1967 and 1968, McHugh never specifically identifies the city, just that it's in Montana. Initially, the family lives in what our narrator, 13-year-old Grace, refers to as the "nice house," provided by the university where both parents teach. Nora teaches law. David teaches acting. Grace's 11-year-old sister, Franny, completes our primary cast of characters.
McHugh, who received an MFA from the University of Montana and teaches high school English in Hamilton, uses the first third of the book to show what this family's world is like. It is a bohemian household, the site of many parties hosted by the Birch family for a wide circle of friends, including, occasionally, some of their students. Through the eyes of our young narrator we get a looming sense that all isn't well. There is a hint, perhaps, of alcoholism, and certainly that a schism is widening in her parents' marriage. David is often away from the house, working with his students or attending social events among them. Nora is around her daughters, but spends hours at her typewriter with her own work. She doesn't seem much more emotionally available than their father is. There is love here, but it's muted.
Things come to a head with the arrival of Ivan, one of David's students. Ivan needs a place to stay for a few weeks and David has offered him a spare room in the Birch home for the duration. Nora is angry at first but comes to accept Ivan. The young man is quiet and kind and it isn't long before he ingratiates himself to the entire family. But it's when our narrator witnesses a tender moment between Ivan and her father at a party that some of the questions McHugh has subtly planted in our minds are answered.
McHugh's handling of how this story plays out is where her writing shines. I grew up in the Missoula area in the early 1970s, and since The Actor is seen through the eyes of a child, centering on how she and her sister spend their time, it was happily familiar to me. Left largely to their own devices, the sisters forge new relationships not only with a growing cast of characters but with each other and their mother. I remember more than I realized what it was like to grow up in this time period. To run wild in the fields and forest near my home and to live a largely unsupervised life. My childhood did not consist of me constantly being hauled about by my parents from one activity to the next. Growing up, I either made my own fun and created my own adventures or I didn't have any. McHugh captures this aspect of the period with great skill.
This is a slow burn of a book. It's an excellent companion for reading while relaxing on a porch or in the shade of a tree during the summer when it's too hot for much of anything else. Readers who prefer tidy endings or a plot-driven, three-act narrative may want to stay away. Some may find it ponderous, or feel its tendency to meander a sign that it doesn't go anywhere. I wouldn't necessarily argue against those assessments, but The Actor works for me. I could have used more humor in the story, which comes exclusively in short bursts via the antics of Franny, but the book isn't something I would describe as bleak. Some hints McHugh provides us go nowhere and a few questions go unanswered. The characters, and McHugh's beautiful writing, though, are more than worth the time.
Beth Hunter McHugh reads from The Actor at Fact & Fiction Fri., May 6, at 5:30 PM.