Tales From a Tragic Summer

Private Means: A Novel

“The truth isn’t so disposable…It carries an intrinsic value—in life and especially in relationships.”

Summertime has a way of making minds idler, and as a result, getting people into trouble. This is the space where we meet intellectual empty-nesters Alice and Peter, melting away in their New York apartment. Alice is in distress over the loss of her beloved dog, Maebelle, as well as the loss of attraction to her husband. Meanwhile, Peter finds himself crossing lines with his psychiatric patient. As they try to dissipate their tension with frequent trips out of the city heat, they find there is no way to escape the realities of their unraveling relationship.

Private Means. By Cree LeFavour. Grove Atlantic. 2020. Hardcover.

How did I get the book?

As the Publicity/Marketing Intern for Grove Atlantic this past year, I have been in the very fortunate position of having early access to all of the house’s titles (usually because I was the one mailing them out to journalists for press coverage). This one caught my eye when the galleys arrived back in the winter, so I added it to the illustrious pile on my desk.

You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores!

What did I think?

Allowing the novel to burn over the course of a hot, uncomfortable summer creates the perfect environment for the tension bubbling between Alice and Peter to burst. They have more time on their hands, more skin to show, and they are freer to look for distractions from their usual world, one where “the idea of excitement was vaguely overwhelming.” For both of them, this comes in the form of fantasies about other partners. Alice and Peter set loose these previously quarantined ideas in different manners over the course of three months, but it seems that both feel the freedom to do so because of the natural ease presented to them in their privileged summer way of life.

But there is a lot of rage boiling inside the couple as the summer plays out. It is so palpable it is even once described to a friend by Alice as “a natural heat source” in a kind of dark joke. However, for every beat of anger, there is also one of loneliness and/or regret. Neither Alice nor Peter feel fulfilled by the state of their careers. Peter is coping with the sad reality of his aging parents as Alice struggles to understand connections in her life what with her twin daughters away at college and her dog—arguably the only living being she showed affection towards—now lost. It is said of Alice, “She’d lost track of herself entirely in becoming a thing she’d never dreamed she’d be.” Although Peter is in a closer role to the one he imagined for himself, there is the sense that he, too, has woken up and started to wonder what the hell he is doing. It breeds anger that they then blame on each other.

Looking beyond the rage of the characters is perhaps more painful. The lulls in their passive-aggressive comments allow for darker truths to slip out, like the heart-wrenching moment when Peter uses the past-tense of “love” to describe how he feels about his wife. Jokes, affairs, and expensive wine downed in crystal glasses on private beaches aside, these quiet, emotional moments are when the novel gets to you. In them, LeFavour presents one of the more unsettling questions that arise in any long-term relationship: am I in love, or am I just comfortable?

Final verdict?

🌟 2.75/5 — Above Average

LeFavour is generally doing her best work when she is describing food and sex. (On Alice’s affair: “We were careful with each other and curious. Tender the way you aren’t with someone you’ve fucked a hundred times.”) Generally speaking, though, the most successful bits are some of the briefest, the sentences where it is clearly but simply articulated that Alice or Peter have stumbled upon realizing something about themselves/their feelings, such as coming to understand their marriage as “more like a complicated friendship.” But then, the train of thought sort of needlessly goes on. One of Peter’s complaints about Alice is that she continues to talk when there is nothing important to say. At times, I felt similarly about the narrative, that good writing had a habit of getting lost in larger bubbles of mediocracy.

The lack of marketed suspense or ultimate resolve also troubled me. I never cared that I didn’t particularly like Alice or Peter, but I did feel frustrated after spending a summer with them that little ultimately changes. I also sort of chuckled when LeFavour describes the writing of a friend of Alice and Peter’s as “a slightly trashy novel in spite of its subdued, tasteful cover.” Although there isn’t much of anything subdued about Private Means’ cover, it does at times feel like LeFavour is trying to make the book a bit more ostentatious than it needed to be.

Beyond the book.

Although this is LeFavour’s first novel she has penned many cookbooks and one memoir, Lights On, Rats Out, that explores her mental illness post-college. Writer Daphne Merkin reviewed it for the New York Times in 2017. You can also watch a video from LeFavour’s launch event at Strand Books, which at the very least will make you nostalgic for sitting at bookstore readings—oh, what simpler times...

Next week, LeFavour will be in conversation with New York Times book critic Dwight Garner (also, her husband) to celebrate the release of Private Means. The event is being hosted by McNally Jackson online with more information here.

See you again soon!

Rachel x