The best marriages, like the best boats, are the ones that ride out the storms.
Russell Calloway’s beautiful wife, Corrine, is suffering from a mid-life crisis after she unexpectedly reconnects with
an old flame a Manhattan charity gala held by Casey, her best friend. Luke
McGavock has been running a winery in South Africa but has recently returned to New York with his much younger wife. Although it has been three years since she last saw Luke, Corrine feels a visceral thrill in his presence.
They met doing volunteer work together at a soup kitchen just days after 9/11. Russell has never suspected
how thoroughly Corrine withdrew from him back then, or how close she came to leaving him.
The machinery of McInerney’s ambitious novel accelerates with Corinne and Luke’s chance encounter. Corrine finds herself thinking about the first night they spent together at the little studio Luke kept in a dilapidated town house on 71st
Street. Luke is eager to reconnect with Corrine, accompanying her to a volunteer housing project in the Bronx where she manages a non-profit that supplies food--mostly fresh fruit and vegetables--to disadvantaged neighborhoods. Attempting to court Corrine with an offer of lunch and dinner, Luke acknowledges that sleeping with her one more time will “either sate his desire or fuel it.”
Intimacy, particularly martial intimacy, is the over-arching theme of Bright, Precious Days, McInerney’s clever paean to his beloved Manhattan, a city where every gesture has an added grandeur and a “metropolitan gravitas.” Russell and Corrine consider themselves to be “youthful idealists,” symbolic of New Yorkers who take pride in a city that has often divided humanity into two opposing teams: “Art and Love versus Power and Money.” Russell might see himself
as the “priest of the written word,” yet his publishing house is staggering on the brink of bankruptcy. Desperate for an infusion of fast capital, he makes a snap decision to take on Jack Carson, a hotshot new literary protégé. Jack, however, is also a cokehead with an appetite for controlled substances.
McInerney beautifully incorporates Jack’s point of view at one of Russell and Corrine’s dinner parties. The scene is both funny and exhausting as the Calloway clan spiral out of control. Corrine’s “slutty” sister, Hilary, takes center stage, causing Corrine to reiterate her maternal claim. Here McInerney injects his trademark humor, contrasting Jack’s reaction as he becomes caught between the Calloway’s gentle façade of sophistication and his own Southern roots, where “cooking crystal meth” is often considered to be the ultimate “family business.”
Corrine finds herself increasingly imprisoned within an invisible vault of guilt and infidelity. She
wants to convince herself that she’s over Luke and that he has no bearing on her actual life. She’s anxious and thrilled as she meets him for sexy assignations uptown while confiding her affair to Casey. Corrine’s biggest champion, Casey, encourages her to see more of Luke. Corrine is also desperate to move.
Increasingly annoyed at Russell, she thinks he clings to an outdated vision of himself as “a downtown Bohemian.” Blithely unaware of his wife’s infidelities, Russell--bruised by his own romantic sensibilities--is just too willing to admit that his marriage is “seaworthy, if not exactly buoyant.”
McInerney invites us share Corrine and Russell’s world, as well as out- of-control Jack and reserved Luke,
who is now the most significant love interest in Corrine’s life. The author brilliantly captures the urban zeitgeist of these millennial years, from the two wars to the endless political primary season to the crash of 2008,
when New Yorkers discovered their wealth was illusory, their investments in the sophisticated financial markets “houses of cards, built on sand.” McInerney makes us understand and perhaps even sympathize with the seductive lure of this fast Manhattan lifestyle and the elaborate rituals of its elite, drug-fuelled society.
Luckily, Corrine and Russell’s marriage proves to be far more muscular than its respectable veneer might at first suggest. Corrine eventually recognizes that her ardor for Luke was informed by a festering sense of intransigence. Russell’s situation is also entirely convincing; we can imagine ourselves resorting to the same methods given similar circumstances--lack of money, wilting prospects, a stagnating marriage. While the novel’s length somewhat weakens its impact, this isn't enough to make Bright, Precious Days any less than an original, humorous, even tragic riff on the dark underside of a brightly lit, painfully beautiful decade.