The Loved Ones by Mary-Beth Hughes

The Loved Ones BY Mary-Beth Hughes. Atlantic Monthly Press. Hardcover, 320 pages. $26.
The cover of The Loved Ones

Period sex finally gets its due as dramatic device in Mary-Beth Hughes’s emotionally raw but ultimately elegant novel The Loved Ones. The scene in question opens, as all do in this novel, in medias res, with unhinged rake Nick Devlin in a hotel room with “a pretty girl who seems to have bled all over the bedding.” By the time this passage arrives, near the middle of the book, the dissembling of the Devlin family has already been established: perpetually moving between the East Coast of the United States and England, each member copes with repressed pain through forms of self-destruction. But the description here—complete with “a sodden tampon [lying] neatly next to her charm bracelet on the bedside table,” and “saddle-shaped bloodstain” on Nick’s midsection—is detailed with a particularly sharp focus. Like Jean Rhys, Hughes gives her reader only the barest of warnings before dropping them headlong into frenzy. I was nearing the end of the novel before I had much sense of the characters’ appearances, but Hughes brings the reader so close to each member of the Devlin family that when the faces come into view, we know the characters so well that their physical attributes seem beside the point.

To summarize the plot of The Loved Ones presents a quandary: how does one narrate the Devlins’ disaster? The jacket copy rushes in with a fairly ill-fitting comparison, calling this brutal, lush, brittle tour of the upper echelons of midcentury family hell “Mad Men-esque,” but there’s no “Zou Bisou Bisou” effervescence here. The novel shares its nightmarish domestic sensibility with Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater and its unsettling tone of constantly moving targets with the fiction of Renata Adler, but despite its 1970s setting and luxe-louche vibe, Hughes’s novel is archly contemporary in aim and style. The novel is written almost as a reenactment of past events for the edification of the protagonist young Lily Devlin’s future self. In these pages she is thirteen, bounced between schools in New Jersey and London with her mother, Jean (who tells Lily that her thighs are “shocking”) and her father, Nick (who attacks her, “punching at her shoulders and arms then her chest, her small left breast. […] She’d heard about this, about people floating above their bodies but how surprising to be doing it herself”). Haunting all three Devlins and their extended family—which includes Jean’s father and stepmother as well as Nick’s underworld-connected brother Lionel, his teenage wife, and their newborn—is the memory of Cubbie, Lily’s younger brother, lost to childhood cancer.

From overabundant menstrual flow to the gravid form rendered transparent, women’s bodies and their products are potently wagered in this novel of intermission, silence, and absence. Nick is perpetually missing in action from family life, a condition it seems Jean has obliged, given the good humor with which she receives middle-of-the-night calls from embarrassed staff at nightclubs where her in-his-cups husband has made trouble. But when it is revealed that during Lily’s birth Jean’s insistence on waiting for Nick’s arrival slowed her labor until an emergency C-section was necessary, her skin giving way where her will would not, Jean’s mode of grim, forbearing clean-up is revealed as a terrifying adjustment to an unlivable life. Years later, helplessly vomiting at a meeting with the nuns who administer Lily’s school for troubled girls, Jean insists, “I think I’m pregnant,” more wish than lament. This business of mind over body takes on prismatic meaning when read in concert with the foggy details of Nick’s work as a creative type at a cosmetics company. The misery acrobatics of the corporate cast here reminded me of the antics of the makeup corporation scions who populate The Young and the Restless’s Genoa City, although soap-opera hysterics pale into comparison to the heightened emotional terrorism on display in The Loved Ones. Like the never-ending supply of scotch and cigarettes with which Jean and Nick sustain themselves, will, here, is a survival tool, an affliction as a shield. Considering the photographs taken as part of “a campaign to unseat Mary Quant,” Nick muses: “This played more lampoon than threat.”

But The Loved Ones is all threat, with only the slightest touches of humor to lighten the mood. It’s a cold weapon of a book, firing shots of dysfunction, addiction, and poor mental and physical health with absolutely no intervening commentary. In telling the story this way, Hughes mimetically re-creates the Devlin experience, inviting us into this dark atmosphere with its fine fabrics and smoky interiors. This is one way in which the comparison to Mad Men is more or less apt: it is a seductively well-dressed world, where Jean is continually slipping into tweed-and-cashmere sets right out of Julie Christie’s Don’t Look Now wardrobe and Nick is always purchasing sparkling bangles as penance for his latest crime of the heart. But rather than celebrate the surface itself, Hughes excels at evoking the emptiness behind the façade. What is left? The Loved Ones asks, brave enough to suggest that the answer may be nothing.

“What did it say about her that the favorite part of her life was being alone at night in a taxi.” By choosing to close Jean’s realization with a period rather than a question mark, Hughes offers the closest intimacy that the reader of The Loved Ones might experience, an assurance, as Peter Schjeldahl has written of the paintings of Frida Kahlo: “first, that things are worse than I know, and, second, that they’re all right.”

Lisa Locascio teaches at the University of Southern California and Mount Saint Mary’s University and recently completed a novel, Jutland Gothic.