Kate Christensen has been quietly carving a niche for herself as a chronicler of eccentric characters on the periphery of New York’s cultural vortex. Last year’s pen/Faulkner award for her fourth novel, The Great Man, raised her profile. The book’s conceit—two biographers competing for the attention of the mistress, the wife, and the sister, all satellites to a randy and recently deceased figurative painter—was knowing, the tone fang sharp. The women were over the age of seventy but not without allure (the former mistress hopes the first biographer notices that “her hips and waist were still girlishly slender, her step youthful”).
Christensen has often addressed the American obsession with fading youth. “I had lately begun to notice the new crop of young girls on the sidewalks and in the bars, making me feel supplanted and strange,” reflects twenty-nine-year-old Claudia Steiner in In the Drink (1999). The issue suffuses Christensen’s biting and voluptuous new novel, as she follows two women in their mid-forties who succumb to December-May erotic urges, getting involved with younger men in ways that lead to, yes, Trouble. Her narrator is a therapist named Josie who is mired in a passionless marriage. (“We haven’t had sex since last spring, and that was just because I got drunk and threw myself on you,” she complains to her professor husband of fifteen years.)
The über-cougar, Madonna, is invoked almost immediately. Mick, a composer in his mid-thirties, has just met Josie at her friend’s holiday party. They fall into a flirtatious spat about an aging pop star we recognize at once from snatches of their conversation. Christensen deftly sketches the gender split. Mick: “She irons her hair and she’s had too much plastic surgery. . . . She looks like an emaciated Wife of Bath.” Josie: “She’s got the body of a thirteen-year-old gymnast and she’s almost fifty.”
Josie catches sight of a radiant woman in the mirror dressed like she is, lifts her glass, and realizes it’s her own reflection. Improbable as it may seem, the moment is transformative. “It was then, in that instant, that I knew my marriage was over,” she thinks. Later that night, she goes home with another guy (not Mick). Within days, she dumps her professor and pouty adopted teenage daughter and heads south to join her former college roommate Raquel in search of a “fun little vacation fling.”
Raquel, a rocker in the style of Bonnie Raitt or P. J. Harvey, has been involved with a twenty-three-year-old HBO star whose girlfriend is pregnant. The affair has sputtered into scandal (one gossip blogger dubbed her a “cougar gone wild”), and her publicist has advised her to get out of LA. She faces her own midlife reckoning (“In rock years, I’m geriatric,” she moans to Josie). Raquel is heartbroken over her breakup and in despair over her future when Josie joins her at a backpacker hotel in Mexico City’s Centro.
The capital, in its gritty glory, is a fitting backdrop for Christensen’s tale of midlife escapism. And she nails the details, from the sensual delights (the right kind of sangrita with the tequila, peppery mescal, chocolate cake “dense and moist and bittersweet, with a lot of cinnamon”) to bit characters like Chuy, the “razor-thin” punk Tex-Mex musician, a “self-proclaimed ‘wetback’ who looked like an El Greco figure.”
With Raquel in the lead, the two friends dart from café to cathedral to club, drinking steadily. They stop by a bar where Chuy is performing, and Raquel joins him onstage. Josie sees her overcome her “lingering sadness and hurt feelings” that Chuy refused to perform on her album and describes them as turning themselves into “slaves of the song.” She also displays an American-style naïveté, concluding that Chuy’s song has to do with “longing and loss and other dark Latin emotions.”
Josie attracts a younger man, a painter named Felipe, at an art opening. Her responsiveness surprises her. “Something had shifted as I got older, and now I felt a pure carnal craving, exactly like I imagined men must feel.” While Josie and Felipe play out a teasing, steamy seduction, Raquel’s precarious emotional balance is tipping. Then a blogger exposes her hideout, drawing paparazzi. Christensen conducts her characters through a labyrinth of revelation and betrayal before we reach the resonant, surprising conclusion.
Christensen offers plenty of artful and witty insights and a sumptuous banquet of vicarious thrills: “I felt the sated, soaring, goofy joy that came from the untrammeled, augmented commingling with another person, the pleasure of magnificent, requited lust, somehow suddenly right in myself,” Josie exults after a night with Felipe. But the caustic brilliance of the author’s earlier novels is diluted because Josie, the first-person narrator, is prone to therapy talk and occasional lapses into smarmy asides. When she finally realizes that Raquel has backslid into drug use after a decade of being clean, her reaction is pure platitude: “This is my opinion as your friend and also as a shrink. You’re suicidal, and you’re begging me for help, and so I’m telling you what to do to save yourself.” At times, we’re stuck with Josie, who becomes increasingly self-involved as her libido ignites, when we’d rather know more about the scrappy, troubled, and gifted Raquel. Still, Josie’s future seems promising enough to suggest that growing older brings unexpected rewards. By defying convention and taking risks, she retrieves her identity, long blurred by domestic roles, and glimpses the possibility of a midlife reawakening. And so Christensen, once again on target, finds her familiar subversive groove.
Jane Ciabattari’s criticism has appeared in many publications, including the New York Times, The Guardian online, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle.