Sometimes the structure of a novel so suits its content, so fully allows characters to inhabit the page, that it’s hard to imagine any other arrangement.

So it is with Susan Conley’s twisty, absorbing new novel, with its brief urgent chapters that read like dispatches from near and far. “Elsey Come Home” is a story of muddled identity, of lost and found, that winds through three continents in the service of its main character. Here’s Elsey in Dublin, a flashback to a former beau; in Beijing, living as an expat with her family; back in Maine, visiting her childhood home. For all the people and places we encounter along the way, all the crosscuts and switchbacks, this is unmistakably Elsey’s story. She is, at once, narrator, obstacle course and star of her own show.

Susan Conley Staff photo by Gregory Rec

On the face of it, this novel is the epitome of so-called women’s fiction, that breed of story that’s female-centric in its themes, characters and biases. A successful artist and mother of two young girls, Elsey is constantly juggling the demands of family and work. And neither half of the equation fares well: Whether playing with her kids or painting a canvas, she’s always at arm’s length. Ditto for her marriage to the winsome Lukas, a Danish producer of electronic dance music, who does double duty as a parent. Ever loving and patient, Lukas offers to send Elsey on a weeklong yoga retreat in the mountains. Elsey correctly understands this as an ultimatum – her marriage depends on it. The trip becomes the source of all that will unfold – of a major new friendship and critical self-reckoning.

And there’s the rub: Elsey is, to put it bluntly, a mess. Not a sloppy, unconstrained mess, but a smart and observant bystander to the train wreck she’s become. She gains our sympathy not through endless recitation of her troubles – of which there are many, both real (alcoholism) and imagined (arm cancer) – but by poignant and careful pruning. Conley takes her protagonist’s screw-ups and compresses them into small, dire proclamations. The effect is often bracing.
Elsey thrives in a poetry of mirrors and self-repair.

“I was trying to become someone else. Or to lose the person I’d become,” she says. Then later: “I had a way of appeasing people back then, by appearing to think what they wanted me to think. I did this so they would leave me be. Did I also appease my husband? A marriage, then, based on small acts of omission?”

In a sense, this is a book about travel, about different places and perspectives, where comparisons between China and Maine – a likeness of pine trees, even – seem oddly natural. And for Conley they are: As her 2011 memoir, “The Foremost Good Fortune,” recalls, the Portland-based author transplanted her family to Beijing for three years, where they lived as expats. Her first-hand knowledge lends a vibrancy to the settings and encounters throughout.

But of course, the real distance traveled in this book is that of Elsey’s inner odyssey. Hers is a rolling identity crisis, soaked in alcohol, marinated in the feminist fantasy of having it all, and clarified through motherhood.   

“It was easier to drink than to do the work required to not drink….” Elsey says. “When you drink, you’re in a private conversation with the drinking, and it becomes something you do, and in this way it’s an obligation. A gift you give yourself, but also a weapon.”

Readers may come away from this book marveling at the small miracle they’ve just witnessed – this feisty blur of a woman, caught in the grip of her many demons, hellbent on pushing everyone, and everything, away. Still, she – and her marriage – manage to emerge, like the pieces of a broken self, reassembled into a recognizable whole. Elsey is that rare creation that evokes real life, defies predictability and disarms us at every turn. Conley has taken a jittery pile of loose ends and made a thing of beauty.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.


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