Fire, we’re reminded in Melissa Falcon Field’s novel, “What Burns Away,” requires fuel, oxygen and heat. At the center of the story is Claire Spruce, a recent stay-at-home mom who leaves her career as an atmospheric researcher in Connecticut to follow her husband, Miles, to Madison, Wisconsin, for his dream job as a doctor and clinical researcher. The book opens on the cusp of her 40th birthday, with her assessment of how far she’s fallen from her dreams, existing in a marriage that is unfulfilling to a man who no longer has time for her.
The story is infused with pyric allusions. The first is that of a mythic young African girl who throws a handful of hot embers into the sky to create the Milky Way to dissolve her loneliness. Then comes the fiery passing of Haley’s Comet and various meteors in the heavens. And, there are the real flames sparked by Claire’s abandonment by her mother and her father’s subsequent diminishment – just for starters.
The plot is driven by emotional fire, all of it destructive. The cumulative detritus of Claire’s childhood and marriage comprise the fuel in the story. And the sudden reappearance of Dean, Claire’s first love, now some 25 years on, provides both the heat and the oxygen – a sudden rush of it. It all combusts in an out-of-control conflagration that threatens to consume everything and everyone.
Field, a graduate of the University of Maine at Farmington who studied and taught at the Salt Institute in Portland, weaves the backstory of Claire’s adolescence with the desperation of her marriage. In the former, Dean is a “bad boy” who dropped out of high school, older and daring and wondrously appealing to young Claire. In contrast, Miles, a young Midwesterner that she meets in a bar, follows her lead to strip down and go swimming in the ocean the night they meet, a rare impulsive act that proves the extent of his wildness. Nevertheless, Miles seems to promise Claire what she most desires, to have a family to hold dear so as to never succumb to repeating the failings of her mother.
Dean reappears in Claire’s present-day life via that most modern of avenues: Facebook. Claire hasn’t seen him since he inexplicably vanished from her life on her 15th birthday. Dean once again lives in their oceanfront Connecticut hometown. The two circumspectly update one another in electronic exchanges, slowly rekindling the smolder of memories.
As Claire’s hapless life as a wife is laid bare, the exchanges flare into blatant flirtations. Things ignite when Dean shows up unannounced at her door in Wisconsin, having come to “rescue” her, as he declares.
The disintegration of Claire’s childhood family becomes more poignant with the disintegration of her own marriage, with Miles clueless and myopic, blinded by over-the-top self-absorption. Dean works to reassert his gravitational pull on Claire, seeking to drag her back into his orbit, arousing Claire’s desire to reclaim the daring girl she was once was long ago. Both story and backstory eventually devolve into incinerated ash of epic proportions, revealing hidden truths that recast Claire’s – and the reader’s – understanding of events.
In the end, the integrity of “What Burns Away” threatens to be consumed in a climax that first appears to present a too-neat resolution. The book rescues itself with a sudden turn that reveals the complexity of marriage under duress.
“What Burns Away” provides both an anatomy of a marriage and its toxic effluence. In Field’s hands, the physics and metaphysics of fire torch what is at once most flammable and tender in such unions.
Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was released in October 2014. It was selected as a Notable Book of the Year in the literary fiction category by Shelf Unbound, the international indie book review magazine. Smith can be reached at frankosmithstories.com.