In her three collections of short stories, Antonya Nelson carefully picked at the interworkings of domestic relationships like an obsessive worrying a bothersome scab, teasing and prying until all the raw flesh was exposed. But could she maintain such intense scrutiny for an entire novel? Absolutely. In Talking In Bed, Nelson works her way into the invisible interstitial matter that bonds couples and manages to spin a whole expansive tale in this tenuous region.
Under the microscope are Rachel and Evan Cole, married 16 years with two sons. The novel opens with Evan, a perfectionistic psychologist, smothering his father -- a mean old bastard who has been dying forever -- at a Chicago hospital. In the same ward he meets Paddy, a regular, blue-collar kind of guy, who is genuinely grieving over the death of his own father. After the mercy killing, Evan latches onto Paddy as his one true friend and in the midst of a deep existential crisis feels compelled to leave Rachel for a squalid apartment, baffling everyone involved, including himself.
What follows are messy self-examinations by one and all. Paddy, a happy-go-lucky guy before he met brooding Evan, is suddenly unsatisfied with his simple, dull Mormon wife. Rachel, a successful lawyer and content mother, empathizes with Evan's crippling ennui and, while she fights off depression with alcohol, finds herself strangely attracted to the simple handsome stranger that Evan has latched onto. But mostly Evan and Rachel think of each other, wondering what has held them together, the layers of needs and habits that silently accrued over 16 years: "She now felt his substance in her body like a forgotten organ, the tumorlike presence of her conscience. It was heavy and joyless, like a documentary film, like a news bulletin from a war zone, like reality."
Like an archeologist going through tons of rubble with a toothbrush then reconstructing the ruins, Nelson has a patient, meticulous eye and her observations steadily build into an impressive whole. -- Salon
Nelson's first novel, after three award-winning collections of short stories, is a sensitive but curiously cold-blooded investigation into the vicissitudes of love and marriage. Paddy Limbach and Evan Cole, two very different men, are drawn into a kind of friendship after they meet at the hospital where both are visiting their dying fathers. A few weeks later, in the throes of feelings he can't quite understand, Evan leaves his wife, who falls in love with Paddy, putting two marriages into jeopardy. This triangular relationship brings clearly into focus all the conflicting emotions--rage, fear, uncertainty, yearning, and a recognition of one's mortality--that are experienced at mid-life, especially after the death of a parent. Intelligently written, brave in its unflinching exploration of aging, love, and loss, this work shows that Nelson's considerable narrative talent can be sustained for the length of a novel.
We are borne along by Nelson's appealing sense of comedy and smart dialogue, by her astuteness and intelligence. She is as remarkable and impressive a novelist as she is a writer of short fiction. It is a pleasure to ready what one presumes is but the first of many such triumps. -- Boston Book Review
Every age is filled with narrative pleasures. -- LA Times
Nelson is a master at capturing the unexpected ways in which our lives and oh-so-carefully laid plans are often effortlessly and completely derailed. -- The Detroit Free Press
The title is particularly apt: The only time the characters in this sad, startling first novel really do talk to each other, sharing guilty secrets and long-nursed regrets, is in bed.
Outside the bedroom, they are almost always tangled in confusion and deceits. Much of that confusion is generated by Evan Cole. He and Paddy Limbach meet at a hospital. Paddy, a roofer, has just lost his father to a heart attack. Evan, a mordant, unsparing psychologist (who "could not see himself as an ordinary man"), has been visiting his father, who is mortally ill but still somehow clinging to life. Clinging, that is, until Evan, angry, exasperated, suffocates him and gets away with the crime. Nelson, the author of three strong collections of short fiction (Family Terrorists, 1994, etc.), pulls off something both unsettling and uncommon here: Without ever excusing Evan, she refuses to let us dismiss him. He is, in many ways, a decent man. Overcome by guilt, he seeks out Paddy, a figure who at first seemed nothing more than "a large blustery blonde" in cowboy boots, but who is in fact an alert and deeply compassionate figure. His company gives Evan some small solace, a respite he cannot seem to find with Rachel, his bright, affectionate, capable wife. Evan, finding himself increasingly "a man without feelings," leaves Rachel and, perversely, works to throw Paddy and Rachel together. They begin an affair. Nelson's portrait of Rachel, as she struggles to master her anger at Evan and to recover some sense of independence and strength, is very exact, a subtle portrait of a woman coming to grips with past compromises and present pain.
Evan seeks to undo what he has done, and Rachel must choose between two men who seem equally necessary to her. There's not really a happy ending here, but there is a believable one. Altogether, an unsparing dissection of adultery and human frailty.