BOUND by Antonya Nelson

Book Quote:

“To realize how lucky she was to have survived her own incautious past always sent a shudder through Catherine—one run red light, one inexplicable pill, one bad man, one unforgivable decision, and everything would have turned out otherwise.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage  (OCT 25, 2010)

Set mostly in Wichita, Kansas, Antonya Nelson’s Bound drops us right into the lives of a handful of characters. These characters are mostly connected by familial or marital bonds, and yet there are other bonds here too–the bonds of loyalty and friendship. At the centre of the story is Catherine Desplaines, married to a successful, wealthy, and much older businessman husband, Oliver.

Childless Catherine leads a sterile, but even existence as Oliver’s trophy wife #3. Her life is built around Oliver’s wishes and social obligations, and she’s got the sort of rosy, undemanding temperament that accepts all of Oliver’s unspoken expectations. Oliver, a strange, emotionally disconnected man, already had children from his previous wives, and those relationships have turned out to be disastrous. Catherine, always keeping Oliver’s needs to the forefront, seems oblivious to the fact that in many ways she’s paying for the “mistakes” of Oliver’s ex-wives. Catherine’s life changes, however, when she receives a letter informing her that due to the death of a childhood friend, Misty Mueller, she’s now the guardian of a teenage girl.

It’s a savage twist of fate that Catherine now feels morally obligated to raise her former friend’s child as the intrusion of a damaged teenage girl will challenge the tranquility of Oliver’s home life and his calculating selfishness. After all, Catherine’s other major relationship is with her mother, Grace, a former professor and a stroke victim, who’s been shuffled off to the “grim” nursing home, Green Acres:

“Only the most modest of efforts had been made to hide its institutional aspects—standing lamps in some rooms to take the place of the overhead fluorescents; a volunteer harpist who arrived on Tuesdays to roll her battered instrument out of its closet, ready to play for whomever requested it; and the three fat cats who lived in the television lounge, leaping lazily from lap to lap, heavy staticky creatures who’d been rescued from their Alzheimer’s-afflicted owners.”

Grace never approved of Catherine’s marriage to Oliver, and a silent war of disapproval has been waged for almost twenty years. While Oliver has the money to provide better for Grace, he doesn’t, and he refuses to even visit as Grace vegetates in the stink of an understaffed nursing home:

“How was Green Acres?” her husband would ask, when Catherine came home. He never joined her. He preferred to treat the place like a joke. He was only a few years younger than his mother-in-law.

Catherine’s sudden unexpected guardianship of a girl she didn’t even know existed doesn’t exactly test the Desplaines’ marriage as Oliver is already mired in an affair that he fully expects to evolve into marriage #4. But the death of Misty Mueller does have some unexpected ramifications on the characters: Catherine remembers her youthful, unlikely friendship with Misty–a “white trash” girl who came from a poor neighbourhood. As Catherine becomes embroiled in the past, she begins to understand that she opted for a life of no risk while Misty ran headlong into disaster. Meanwhile, Oliver is faced with some painful, long overdue truths about aging.

All this unfolds against the back story of the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) serial killer. Catherine remembers the murders that terrified Wichita in the 70s, and the nursing home residents are fascinated by the case which resurfaces as the BTK killer makes a “comeback” and begins taunting the police about his crimes.

Bound is not a perfect novel. It’s strongest when examining Catherine’s marriage to Oliver, Oliver’s tangled relationships with his ex-wives, and Catherine’s past relationship with Misty. Tiny clues are subtly dropped through the book to hint at unexplored depths of Oliver and Catherine’s relationship. In one instance, for example, Oliver advises Catherine to take a valium, and he conveniently keeps a supply on hand–no wonder she’s so mellow and pliant. These glimpses into the marriage aren’t overworked–they’re just dropped as clues to the deeper problems in this relationship.

There were a couple of extraneous story threads that didn’t add much to the tale, and they could have been surgically removed with very little damage. Oliver’s constant references to “the sweetheart” were irritating, Catherine Mueller is an unsatisfactory, shallow figure, and the episodes involving Misty Mueller’s dog were distracting. That said, I liked Bound a great deal. I liked the mostly sharp characterizations, and I liked the way in which the author drew parallels between her characters. Catherine, for example, really doesn’t know her husband well at all even though she directs their lives towards what she thinks are his comforts and his desires. She thinks he loves their Corgis, for example, but Oliver doesn’t allow them in his bedroom. Oliver’s relationship with his dogs isn’t much better than his other relationships: everyone is a replaceable accoutrement when they get old, tiresome or ill. To Oliver everything is a transaction: his relationships with his children, his relationships with his ex-wives, and even his relationship with his mistress are all founded on money. At one point, he very coldly assesses Catherine while noting that her shelf life has more or less expired.

There’s a coldness and a secretiveness to Oliver which parallels the double life of the BTK killer. The true characters of these men remain unknown to their families–although Oliver’s secret life is not uncommon and is considered socially acceptable while the BTK killer’s secret life is, of course, far more deadly. As the story unfolds, and the various characters respond to the tragedy of Misty’s death, Bound explores the idea that our relationships with other people reveal a great deal about who we really are. Some of my favourite scenes involved Oliver at Green Acres visiting his mother-in-law; he’s an intriguing, although repellent character, and an excellent example of how one man can be so successful and yet be completely devoid of any self-evaluation.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 28 readers
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury USA (September 28, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page Antonya Nelson
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October 25, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Character Driven, Contemporary, Family Matters, Reading Guide, US Midwest, y Award Winning Author

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