The Melting Season by Jami Attenberg

The Melting Season BY Jami Attenberg. Riverhead Hardcover. Hardcover, 304 pages. $25.
The cover of The Melting Season

Jami Attenberg’s new novel, The Melting Season, begins with a familiar premise: a small-town girl leaves her problems (a broken marriage, a dysfunctional family, and a pregnant teenage sister) behind and sets out for Vegas with a suitcase full of cash. There she makes fast friends with another injured woman who becomes her metaphorical partner in crime à la Thelma and Louise, bolstering her with endless support and encouraging her on the road to recovery. In this sense, the book is a smooth, easy read with breezy dialogue and a seemingly recognizable story, smartly interrupted by the jolt that comes when Attenberg reveals why the protagonist’s marriage has fallen apart—not the usual infidelity, but reasons much more complicated, tied up in sexual insecurities and heirloom emotional scars.

When it comes to addressing complexities such as these, however, Attenberg’s novel never quite thaws. The protagonist, Catherine Madison, claims to be swallowed up by the realization that she can’t feel, and readers may be left with the same void. The small-town-girl-escapes-to-Vegas storyline, though brisk, doesn’t provide enough insight into our heroine, who fails to find herself no matter how far away she runs. As for the dysfunction that Catherine so desperately wants to escape, too little is offered too late. While much of the story hinges on understanding the twisted bond between Catherine, her young sister, and their mother (another damaged woman who spends her time sucking down beer and cigarettes), the ultimate explanation for their fraught relationship, which stems from a gruesome “bedtime story” the mother told her daughters when they were young, is unconvincing. Attenberg seems to relish sudden revelations about her characters, but too often the characters—particularly a faded star named Rio DeCarlo—aren’t developed enough to sustain these intense blips of exposure.

The strength of the book lies in the author’s eye for peculiarities, moments that cleverly disrupt the borderline beach-read feeling: the budding relationship between a Paul McCartney impersonator and Valka, Catherine’s instant-connection friend; the unexpected intimacy between Catherine and a trans-gender Prince impersonator; and the overwhelming, tragicomic insecurity of Catherine’s husband, Thomas. Readers may wish that Attenberg would commit more fully to these passages, which are funny, painful, awkward, and most representative of being human. If, in Attenberg’s next work, she allows her characters to step outside of the numbing effects of their traumas and expose themselves, it is exciting to imagine where she could take us.

Je Banach has written for Esquire, Granta, KGB Bar Lit, Guernica, and Opium. She is currently at work on a novel and a collaborative fiction project with Jonathan Lethem.