Review: The Tell by Hester Kaplan
It’s said that two of the most basic plots in literature start with the hero setting off on a journey, or a stranger coming to town. In her new novel, The Tell, Hester Kaplan blends these two themes in an intriguing way: a familiar stranger moves in next door and throws a marriage into crisis, sending the central couple on a journey to discover what really matters to them and whether their relationship can withstand the triple blow of addiction, jealousy, and suspicion.
Mira Thrasher comes from money; her Victorian home in Providence, Rhode Island is stuffed full of the antiques she suddenly inherited after her parents’ fatal car crash. With the philanthropic confidence that comes from knowing a community intimately and having the wealth to make a difference, Mira has set up an art therapy center called Brindle, where she offers free classes to the underprivileged.
Her husband, Owen Brewer, is altogether different: although he also works with at-risk youth, as an inner-city sixth grade teacher, he feels he’s not making any impact. He breaks up fights, assigns books that never get read, and watches trends of teenage pregnancy and truancy continue. The rich kids he tutors in the evening are little better – they’re usually too stoned to take anything in. Owen is an outsider here: an alarmingly tall out-of-state transplant trailed by sad stories. His mother died when he was young, leaving him to be raised by his preoccupied ecologist father, and several years ago he saw his girlfriend shot and killed in front of him during a holdup at a Mexican restaurant. He can never forgive himself for doing nothing to save her.
The house next door to Mira and Owen’s has lain empty since the last occupant’s death. One day a new neighbor, Wilton Deere, moves in. He is strangely familiar to both of them yet difficult to place. It turns out he is a washed-up television actor, vaguely remembered for nursing home sitcom Ancient Times, which aired two decades ago but still turns up as reruns on the late night channels to which Mira is devoted.
Wilton is charming and happy-go-lucky, generously plying Owen and Mira with expensive mail-order foodstuffs and gifts. He quickly becomes their closest friend, but he brings his own shameful secrets with him: like Owen, he once failed to do all he could to protect a loved one, and now he is desperate to make things right with his estranged daughter Anya, who has come to town to study medicine.
While Wilton throws his cash around, with extravagant donations to Brindle and trips to the Connecticut casino with Mira, Owen starts to worry. Is his wife falling in love with Wilton? And will her seemingly harmless gambling pastime turn into an addiction with lasting consequences? Over the course of the tumultuous year that Wilton is in their lives, Owen and Mira will have to decide what is worth saving and what must be abandoned if their marriage is to survive.
A “tell,” in reference to gambling, is a physical tic or mannerism that gives away what a person is really thinking. Mira has just such a tell – she is incapable of hiding her feelings; whereas Owen has had years of practice doing just that. Indeed, The Tell is about what is hidden and what will be revealed, secrets that come out into the open no matter how fiercely they are guarded.
If The Tell begins with the kind of wry domestic comedy found in Anne Tyler novels, it swiftly becomes something altogether more weighty and sinister – more like Chris Bohjalian’s Midwives or Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs. Attacks and accidents feel cyclical and inevitable, with similar incidents befalling multiple characters. After their house is broken into, Owen’s father gives him a hand-me-down gun for protection. The gun introduces a note of menace – as Mira says, echoing Chekhov’s rules for drama, “If there’s a gun in the house, it goes off” – that throws a pall of foreboding over the rest of the book. As Owen becomes increasingly violent, throwing antiques at Mira, laying hands on a punk kid at the Y pool, and imagining his school going up in flames, readers know the novel is headed for some tragic climax; the only question is exactly what and how horrible it will be.
Even in this seemingly peaceful New England setting, the history of violence is pervasive; the very name of the city serves an ironic purpose, for there is no ‘Providence’ looking out for these luckless people. As Wilton declares, on behalf of all the characters, “We’re much closer to tragedy than we ever think.”
Despite the occasional predictable plot element or dull scene at Mira and Owen’s workplaces, Kaplan has crafted an absorbing story of seduction and sadness that never strays too far into sentimental thriller territory. She makes you care about her characters, stupid mistakes and all, and her descriptive powers are strong whether she’s picturing a frozen pond in Connecticut or glassy-eyed early morning gamblers at a slot machine. In this fictional world where familiar dangers always lie in wait, there is still the ever-present hope of restoration.
About Hester Kaplan
Hester Kaplan grew up surrounded by writers; her father is Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Justin Kaplan and her mother is novelist Anne Bernays. After a childhood spent around authors and editorial offices, Kaplan swore she would never have anything to do with books or writing, and went off to study anthropology at Barnard College. But she found that rather than researching the customs of African or South American tribesmen, she was interested in the lives of the people around her every day. She started her career with books in publishing, where she did production and promotion, and later released short story collection The Edge of Marriage (1999), which won a Flannery O’Connor Award and confirms Kaplan’s interest in marriage as a site of psychological experiment, and the novel Kinship Theory (2001). She lives in Rhode Island with husband Michael Stein, a doctor and fellow writer, and their two sons, and teaches creative writing in Lesley University’s MFA program.
With thanks to Gregory Henry of HarperCollins Publishers for providing a review copy of the novel.