Joe McGinniss Jr., who is “poised to become one of our sharpest observers of life in America at the start of the twenty-first century” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review), returns with one of the most engrossing, unnerving, and exhilarating novels in recent memory: a viscerally absorbing look at the seductive—and destructive—cutting edge of marriage.
Nick and Phoebe Maguire are a young couple who move cross-country to Southern California in search of a fresh start for themselves and their infant son following a trauma. But they arrive at the worst possible economic time, cemented into the dark heart of foreclosure alley and surrounded by neighbors swamped by debt who set fire to their belongings, flee in the dead of night, and eye one another with suspicion while keeping shotguns by their beds. Trapped, broke, and increasingly desperate, Nick and Phoebe each devise their own plan to claw their way back into the middle class and beyond. Hatched under one roof, their two separate, secret agendas will inevitably collide.
“A fearless novel about a family and a society on the brink…Harrowing but, against all odds, ultimately tender” (O, The Oprah Magazine), Carousel Court is an unforgettable vision of contemporary life. It has the ambition of our most serious literary work and the soul of a thriller, managing to be simultaneously sexy, scary, and powerfully moving. Most of all, it offers an unflinching portrait of modern marriage in a nation scarred by vanished jobs, psychotropic cure-alls, infidelity via iPhone, and ruthless choices. “Fast…Foreboding…Joe McGinniss spins an edgy tale, often laced with a reporter’s eye for the little details that make characters pop” (The Washington Post). He leaves you simultaneously gutted and grateful—and curious what your partner is up to on that electronic device across the room.
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Read an Excerpt
Phoebe opens her eyes before the alarm. She does this lately, since they arrived. On low-dosage days the ground beneath her hardens, common sounds are shrill: Jackson’s cries more urgent, Nick’s words more hollow. Above her, the blades of the ceiling fan rotate too fast, send chilled air across Jackson’s exposed arms. He sleeps fitfully next to her and she pulls his small blanket over his shoulders. Last night he was inconsolable or she was. She could remove the pacifier from his mouth and wake him, but watches him instead. There are fourteen bones in the human skull; eight surround the brain. She brushes his forehead where the bruise yellowed then finally faded.
It’s almost seven and Nick still isn’t home. Knowing how exhausted he’ll be, she scrambles eggs and slices ripe mango for him and leaves them on a plate in the microwave and sends him a text telling him they’re there in case he feels like skipping the morning rush at Starbucks on the way home. When she leaves the house it’s already hot and Phoebe holds Jackson to her chest with one arm while her free hand pulls the heavy red front door closed behind her as the ADT chimes. Her day will be spent driving. Always driving.
At day care, she kisses Jackson’s warm forehead. She says “Duck, duck” and he says “Goose!” and laughs. She looks back once, as she does each time she leaves her son in this strip mall three miles from Carousel Court, and blows him kisses. She pushes against the glass door, out into the heat and glare of another day. She should be home with him. She hates herself.
Just after ten in the morning she’s alone on a freeway that connects her to the other side of the city and all the ugly retail strips and offices, and despite the heat and harsh sunlight and the cool air-conditioned car and the helicopter buzzing overhead, this middle part of each morning is a gentle breeze: the zenith of Klonopin highway happens an hour after she swallows the last of four pills. She sends Nick a rambling message, coasts and descends into the valley, and laughs at the woman in the silver Jaguar leaning on her horn because Phoebe won’t leave the left lane and let her pass. You need to be on this, Phoebe thinks, and continues in the left lane doing seventy and considering another caramel macchiato. With whipped cream this time.
Soon it’s one and the sun is a beast and directly overhead and she needs to eat something but she’s buzzed, shaky, from two caramel macchiatos and the anticipation of her afternoon appointment. Her ten milligrams of Klonopin from this morning have worn off completely. The Effexor is losing its effect as well. The tingling in her fingertips, which feel cold in the morning, is a sign. So is her appetite: She has none. She feels empty but the thought of food makes her queasy. The front seat is littered with parking receipts, MAC lip liners, her badge, a suitcase full of pharmaceutical samples and glossy brochures, her iPhone, and a stuffed Elmo doll. Normally on the floor of the passenger side would be the goodies. Mocha frappuccinos with whipped cream for the office staff, a dozen doughnuts from Krispy Kreme. Bribing the gatekeepers is the way the game is played, access to the doctors is everything, the only way to push product, improve her numbers. Show up, perform, and close.
Performing and closing: What happens in the office stays in the office unless he wants to text about it later and send crude photos after midnight. That’s where she’s struggling. The energy is gone. The playfulness and flirtation are labored if not missing entirely. Except today. Today, she will meet a young physician with a new practice and she is energized, sharper than she can remember. She also has a new strategy.
Phoebe breezes into a crowded, cool office and feels the eyes of tired mothers and frail seniors and men moving over her strong, tanned calves and smooth thighs, the thin fabric of her form-fitting lavender skirt. This used to be the most entertaining part of her job. A physician back east once propositioned her in his office, offered to leave his wife and kids for her. Another put a thousand dollars in cash on his desk and asked for her panties. The female office manager of another practice accused her of stealing samples from their closet and had her banned. Phoebe knew the real reason: She was too distracting.
Today a plain-looking office manager working reception hands Phoebe a clipboard and asks her to fill out both sides of each form for new patients.
“I don’t have a ton of time,” she says and waits for the doctor’s eyes to drop to her legs. When they finally do, she scratches her knee, slowly uncrosses and recrosses her legs. “So,” she says as she feels her skirt slide up—clumsily, though, too high—until the yellow lace edge of her panties is showing. She starts to adjust it, then stops. He stares. She’s off her game; the mood isn’t right, the room is too bright, her thoughts bounce from one unrelated topic to the next. Does she have anything left in her checking account? Did the lock click when she pressed the button on the handle? His eyes are too blue. She should stand, go check the door, but her skirt is still too high and he’s still staring. Then she realizes she doesn’t care what he sees or who walks in or what she does because all that matters right now is getting what she came for.
“I need you to write me a prescription.” She interlaces her fingers on her lap. She’s trying too hard to look calm.
“Klonopin. You know, Clonazepam.” She closes her eyes. “The good stuff.”
“Are you anxious?”
She laughs and wipes her nose for some reason. “It’s the driving. It’s bad out here. I’m not used to it.”
The doctor is forty, his brown hair flecked with gray, clean-shaven. His wedding band is silver and thick. He wears an expensive-looking pale blue button-down shirt and black slacks and shoes. He sucks on a mint. He takes no notes as he listens to her explain her medical history.
“I know I scheduled a physical but actually I just need the ’script.”
“Where is it coming from?” he says, meaning her anxiety.
She sighs. “You know, the usual tribulations. Can you write me something?”
“What other medications are you taking?”
On her way here, stuck in traffic, Phoebe had watched a skinny, wrinkled woman with bleached-blond hair in a floral bikini and Coke-bottle shades push a stroller with two big kids in it along the side of a six-lane thoroughfare. Those kids, she thought, had to be at least seven years old. The woman looked fifty. The exhaust and heat and sun beat down, and Phoebe had wondered how far she herself was from that, how much debt and desperation until she would be reduced to walking through the vapors.
“Where are you from?” the doctor asks.
“Boston. Delaware before that.” She exhales and crosses her legs again, and the doctor’s not looking. “We were moving to New Orleans.”
“At one point. Now we’re not.”
“You don’t sound too happy about that.”
“We had other plans.”
He stares at her with a sympathetic smile. “What brought you out here?”
The question makes her femur throb, and she feels a flash of pain from the fourth and fifth vertebrae to the top of her skull. “See this?” She pulls up her top, touches a long thin scar along the right side of her torso.
“A UPS truck I didn’t see.”
“What does your husband do?”
A long pause. “A PR firm. He’s a filmmaker,” she says, referring to Nick’s position that prompted the move here. “Produces films for corporate clients, mostly.”
“Get undressed.” He hands her a white paper gown and walks toward the door.
Phoebe watches him go, sees the exam table on the other side of the large office. Before she can say anything, the door closes and he’s gone.
Hung on the wall: a framed spread from the Los Angeles Magazine Best Doctors issue. As she undresses, Phoebe studies the picture of the physician and his wife, casually seated together in an oversize white Adirondack chair. Wrapped around them are two beaming blond children, a pair of Chesapeake Bay retrievers at their feet. She loses herself in the lush green lawn and the sprawling estate. She’s pretty sure they’re not staring down a readjusting ARM. Their smiles are so easy and infectious that she feels the corners of her mouth begin to rise as the physician knocks on the door and pushes it open in one motion.
With Phoebe on her back, the physician slides the paper gown to her hips, leaving her upper body exposed. He presses his fingertips too firmly into her midsection, checking for organ swelling, unusual masses. “What is that?” he asks, breathes in through his nose. “Like cotton candy.”
“Like a teenager?”
He laughs. “Is that the goal?”
“You have how many children?”
“A son. Two and a half.”
His hands hover over her abdomen. She feels warm and sleepy. Her throat is dry.
“I can’t stand in line at Whole Foods without getting dizzy and my heart racing,” she says.
“Are you sleeping?”
“I keep dreaming about water. About my son drowning. Is that normal?”
His finger traces a thin scar. “Cesarean?”
Phoebe nods. She shifts on the table.
He rests both hands on her forearm. “Recovered nicely. My wife struggled after.”
“She looks well-rested. What does she do for a living?”
“Bikram yoga,” he says flatly. “Spinning. Swimming.”
“I hate her.”
“She gets bored.”
“With which part?”
“All of it.”
“Let me guess: his-and-her vanities.”
“Check.” He laughs.
“You’re a cliché. Did she have work done, too?”
“Right here.” His hands press softly against the area just below Phoebe’s navel, where they stay. “Some excess here. Not on you, though.”
She stares overhead, connecting the dots in a single ceiling panel. “I try.”
He stands back, arms folded. “You know what I think?” he says.
Phoebe grips the edge of the exam table with both hands.
“I think you need to give yourself a break.”
“Funny, I was just thinking I’ve been too easy on myself.”
He turns away. Phoebe clears her throat. He pulls on a pair of white latex gloves and says, “Would you prefer that a nurse be present?”
Phoebe shakes her head.
“The anxiety,” he says as he slides his fingers inside of her, “is something worth keeping an eye on.”
Phoebe considers the physician and his firm fingertips. She could lie here for just a bit longer, his fingers inside her, gently being encouraged to give herself a break.
She flinches. Her eyes open. “What are your thoughts about Advair?” she asks.
His fingers slide out. He removes his gloves. “Do you have asthma?”
She sits up, light-headed, the paper gown still at her hips. “The black-box warning from the FDA: Has that impacted your thoughts about prescribing?” She pulls the gown up.
He’s laughing. “This is a first,” he says. “You’re working me?”
“Because it’s really just a product of the stricter FDA guidelines. There’s no new science or interactions that you need to worry about.”
He’s shaking his head with a tight-lipped smile, almost disbelieving, then suddenly with a stern expression, “You’re clearly not playing for the set of steak knives. This is a Cadillac-worthy effort.”
She dresses. He makes no effort to avert his gaze.
“Your practice is about to triple in size.”
“What if it is?”
“Any concerns or questions you have about Advair, I’m happy to discuss now or any time. Allergy season is around the corner, we have the number one med, it’s in my portfolio, and”—she exhales—“have I not earned it?”
He laughs. “I do love you guys,” he says. “But this—you’ve set a new standard.”
She mentions the Dodgers and luxury boxes and dinner and other perks, anything he’d like, as she jots her cell on the back of her GSK Pharmaceuticals card.
He takes it and nods. Then he says, “Do you want a name, Phoebe?”
She tilts her head, plays dumb.
“To talk to. To help with these episodes, the anxiety.”
She pauses. “I just need a refill,” she says. “And one that won’t force me to come back every other month for more.”
“I can’t just write you ’scripts without giving you someone’s name.”
“You can do whatever you want.” She’s pressing now.
He’s standing with his arms crossed, leaning against his desk, not buying it.
“It doesn’t stop,” she says. “I go a little nuts. I put a thousand miles on the car in the past two weeks. And no, I don’t sleep. The more tired I am, the more impossible it is to sleep.” She’s lying to him. She won’t admit to the Klonopin blackouts, the inability to drag herself up the stairs, to lay her son down in his crib with a dry diaper and his pacifier and a night-light. She won’t tell the physician that her son falls asleep instantly on the living room sectional, sitting up, then tipping over, falling to the plush carpeting, knocked out from his own marathon days. “It never, ever, ever stops.” She exhales. “This was amusing, though. This was—” She almost says “nice.”
“Get a nanny,” he says, and hands Phoebe a single slip of white paper.
Their hug is tight.
“It’s generous,” he adds. “But you have to watch these. Driving as much as you do.”
“Strong, too,” she says, finally letting go of the physician. “Nice shoulders. Nice life.”
“See you in three months,” he says and smiles. “Rest assured: You’re a very healthy young woman.”
She unmutes and checks her iPhone. There are texts and a missed call from Nick.
“Tell me again,” she says.
“Tell you what?” the doctor asks.
“To give myself a break.”
“Do you really need one?”
She laughs. “Someone’s going to get hurt.”
“Are you a danger to people? To yourself?”
“You sound like my husband.”
“You’re a stellar rep, Phoebe. Best I’ve seen today.”
“We do it right at GSK.” She winks at him.
“They give you those lines?” he asks, laughing.
“Drilled in. The Blue Army. We’ve always got your back.”
As she passes through the doorway, for no reason that makes any sense to Phoebe, the doctor says in a clinical voice that is so unsettling to her that she freezes: “Be careful out there.”
Phoebe keeps her back to him, slowly pulls the door closed behind her, walks to the elevator, and presses the button. Then presses it again.
She steps onto the elevator. The doors close. She presses a clean, raised circular steel button: double L. Your Life Starts Now. That’s the headline of an osteoarthritis prescription-drug advertisement on the wall. A grinning silver-haired couple cut through a sun-drenched landscape on matching red bicycles. The elevator drops. We won’t grow old together. She can’t picture it. She can’t see Nick losing his hair, gaining weight, swallowing more pills, medication she’ll remind him to take, that he’ll always ask her about: as though these past four miserable years spent peddling GSK pharmaceuticals make her an authority on his physiology. They already sleep in separate beds. Nick ends up on the red IKEA couch in Jackson’s room. He says it’s because of their different schedules; he doesn’t want to disturb her sleep. They’ve stopped having sex. They avoid the topic altogether. She knows this about Nick: He carries the burden of this failure, this home that is crushing them, and will until he’s stooped and broken.
The elevator shudders, picks up speed.
Phoebe considers another path. A way out of debt and away from Carousel Court and nights spent curled up sleepless next to Jackson’s crib listening for shattering glass and footsteps, the next home invasion. Debt and routine and down and down. She sees white Adirondack chairs and chocolate purebred Labradors and a thick lush lawn adorned with children’s toys, short drives to school and smiling teachers and Jackson’s bright eyes and a little wave good-bye and the swell of emotion, and her eyes well up thinking about hot yoga and a call from Nick about a babysitter because they have dinner plans.
Your Life Starts Now. The silver-haired couple is rotting from the inside out: brittle bones and failing organs. If heart failure from too much of the pharmaceutical cocktail doesn’t kill them, the corrosive regret and denial will.
It’s all a fraud. She gets that. They bought the stock at just the wrong time, long after the private-equity investors pocketed their profits. That’s why she sees their situation the way she does now. She’s made her choice. Her insides free-fall. The rush of blood to her head as the swift movement of the elevator eases, gently delivers her to the lower lobby.
The doors open. She nearly grins at the inevitability: This was always going to be the resolution, if not the answer. She’s not twenty-six this time. Unlike then, there is no emotion, no adolescent longing or lust for some other glossy life. Now she has Jackson, Nick, a need to be addressed directly and with conviction.
She shoulders open the tall glass door and leaves the cool, shimmering office building. Ripples of heat rise from the black asphalt. The parking lot is a field of smoldering briquettes and she’s walking through it.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Carousel Court includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In the wake of a terrible accident, Nick and Phoebe Maguire move from Boston to Carousel Court—a brand-new subdivision in Southern California—with big plans: upgrade and flip their house, move to the beach, and live the upper-middle-class lifestyle they’ve always wanted. But when the housing bubble bursts, so do their dreams of a nice car, organic grocery stores, and private school for their son, Jackson. Driven to extreme measures by debt and desperation, Nick and Phoebe reach the brink of self-destruction before they can fight their way back to happiness.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Nick and Phoebe are deeply flawed characters who intentionally hurt each other—and themselves—throughout the course of the novel. Did you see them as relatable or sympathetic in any way? Are they victims or perpetrators? Why or why not?
2. The physical setting in Carousel Court is alternately a breezy, sunny California where “everything pops” (72) and a barren, smoldering landscape of “moaning winds and anguished cries coming from the bone-dry hills” (46). Discuss the significance of the setting and how it both impacts and reflects Nick and Phoebe’s psyches over the course of the novel.
3. The specter of America’s subprime mortgage crisis looms large in this novel. How does McGinniss’s fictional portrayal support, inform, or contradict your understanding of the real-life housing bubble?
4. How do the gendered expectations of marriage factor into Nick and Phoebe’s relationship? What motivates their individual striving: wealth, prestige, physical comfort, stability, or something else?
5. Phoebe’s body seems to deteriorate over the course of the novel, while Nick appears stronger and more virile than ever. What is the symbolic importance of their physical bodies?
6. Discuss Jackson’s role in Carousel Court. How would the novel differ if Nick and Phoebe were childless?
7. What is your impression of Nick and Phoebe’s neighbors? How does the financial crisis impact their sense of community?
8. Nick finds two abandoned dogs while clearing out foreclosed homes: one long dead and the other, who he adopts and names Blackjack, severely neglected. Why do you think McGinniss includes these two instances in the novel? What do you make of Blackjack’s grisly death?
9. What is Phoebe’s primary motivation for going back to JW again and again? Is she simply attracted to his wealth and power, or is she using him as a means of helping her family?
10. Discuss Nick’s affair with Mallory. Do you think his infidelity is more forgivable than Phoebe’s? Why or why not?
11. Why do you think McGinniss chose to reveal Phoebe’s childhood backstory at the end of the novel? Did these chapters change your opinion of her in any way?
12. In what ways is Carousel Court a cultural critique? Is this a novel about modern-day values, or is it a universal story?
13. Reread the novel’s two epigraphs. Has your interpretation of these quotes changed after finishing the book?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Watch the film The Big Short with your book club (or read the source material by Michael Lewis). Discuss how the real-life housing crisis compares to Nick and Phoebe’s circumstances in Carousel Court.
2. Cast your own film version of Carousel Court. Which actors would you want to play the main characters and why?
3. Read Joe McGinniss’s first novel, The Delivery Man, and compare it to Carousel Court. Is there any continuity between the two in terms of style, theme, and setting? Which book was your favorite?
4. Find out more about McGinniss by visiting his website (www.joemcginnissjr.com) and following him on Twitter (@joemcginnissjr).
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book is very well written. It is also the most painful and the most terrifying story of a relationship I have ever come across. It should become a classic, but I doubt that it will be widely circulated or even discussed, which is a shame. I think most of us have an internal list of the very worst things that can happen in our lives; I know I do. Short of death, this novel contains them all. If there is a shortcoming in the narrative, it's that the author can't explore motivation or redemption with the same depth and insight that he uses to capture the horror. Rest assured -- if you're brave enough to read Carousel Court, you'll be riveted. -- catwak