Sun. Apr 2nd, 2023

After reading Stacey D’Erasmo’s forceful new novel, “The Complicities,” you may suddenly feel the need to Google “Bernie Madoff’s wife.”

While not strictly parallel, that saga (of colossal public disgrace) echoes D’Erasmo’s opening premise: Protagonist Suzanne sets about trying to create her own anonymous, quiet life after ex-husband Alan’s imprisonment for manipulations of funds.

You don’t know how it was,” insists Suzanne after her divorce and solo move to Chesham, a small, coastal Massachusetts town. While she allows that Alan committed a crime — “bigger than a breadbox, smaller than Chernobyl” — Suzanne’s fury erupts from the size of the fallout, which is madly out of proportion, she maintains, with the transgression: “Did anyone care about our family and what was happening to us?”

Well, no — not at first. But very soon, we do. Urgent and personal, “Complicities” solidifies D’Erasmo’s reputation not just as a skilled shaper of disparate fictional worlds and beings, but as a fierce investigator of how it may feel to live inside them.

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By turns, Suzanne mulls rationales for her own relative innocence. Though former friends accuse her of enabling Alan’s swindling, she swears she never really knew, or understood. “I thought he was clever about currencies and exchange rates, but it turned out he’d been doing other things,” she explains. “You have to know to be truly complicit, and I didn’t.”

Is she trying to convince herself? “Other people have done a lot worse things. Pol Pot. Drug cartels. Sex traffickers,” she reasons. “And we weren’t like those Wall Street buffoons … the nouveau riche ones you can see coming a mile away by the supernatural glow of their teeth veneers.”

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What makes the story come alive, to D’Erasmo’s enduring credit, is its persistent grounding in the physical. Suzanne rents a tiny, funky house and invents a job as a masseuse (certified online). The drop from a privileged, carelessly affluent social class into grittier realities, proves harsh: scrambling for money, trying to placate a suspicious landlord, staying warm in winter — not least, the skin-on-skin demands of the work itself. Of one client, Suzanne observes, “All of her bones were pronounced … which made massaging her feel curiously anatomical, even medical.”

But Suzanne’s foray also leads to discovery: She’s skilled at massage and likes helping people. “For the first time in my life, I knew exactly what I was doing. … Even as my entire life had crumbled behind me, and my future was uncertain to say the least, I was content.”

That is, until certain people come after her. Gracefully, suspensefully, D’Erasmo layers in backstories of key individuals in Alan’s life — allowing readers to piece together a composite portrait of that charismatic, smooth, elusive man: Sylvia, the mother who abandoned him; Lydia, the disfigured woman he marries after his prison time; and Noah, Suzanne’s estranged young-adult son with Alan. Each of their narratives almost stands as a small novel of its own: ultra-strange, ultra-human.

But another, stranger story surfaces: that of a dead whale. Many, many pages are devoted to describing the huge, stranded mammal that a heroic group (no spoiler) fails to save. The event wallops Suzanne’s thinking. “How could I have been so blind to what was really happening in the world? Our concerns were nothing compared to all this. The ocean was alive, it was an entire world unto itself, and it was grievously endangered.”

Local opinion (scientists, townies) divides bitterly about how to proceed. Funding’s a giant issue. As the creature’s carcass rots on the beach untouched — graphically described — Suzanne (who’d tried to help save it) goes frequently to meditate beside it.

A great deal of marine science is itemized, including reportage on local and national policy-feuding. Despite this plot element’s passionate intentions and clear role emblemizing a different, towering complicity — that of our own, in destroying the Earth — I struggled with the sense of its feeling imposed and, with its bountiful explaining, close to becoming an infomercial. D’Erasmo finally makes it work, tying Suzanne’s passion for the crucial symbolism of the whale’s death into her rather stunning later choice.

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Of the novel’s assorted focuses — families, couples, love, sex, guilt, eco-peril, economics — the kaleidoscopic portrait of Alan most tantalizes. Here, D’Erasmo’s insights shine. “Was he a genius, a psychopath, a hypnotist? Was he such a fantastic con artist?” Suzanne has a theory: “I only knew that we were all just ordinary now and the one thing we would never say to one another is that we hated our ordinariness and always would. Alan gave us his scent of the extraordinary, of possibilities for lives we had never thought we would have.”

Presumably, the doomed whale provides a kind of macro-trope to partner the micro-version embodied by Alan. Many will feel that this one-two punch ignites reader awareness. Certainly, D’Erasmo’s writing is tight and flavorful; her thinking sharp; her characters warmly idiosyncratic; her causes timely, complex, and morally freighted. Maybe that’s more than enough.

Joan Frank’s “Juniper Street: A Novel” and “Late Work: A Literary Autobiography of Love, Loss, and What I Was Reading” are forthcoming in October.

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