When twenty-something Susannah Prue finds herself stranded at the ramshackle Thunder Lodge Motel, a remote outpost situated somewhere in the Texas/New Mexico desert, she realizes there’s a part of her own life that for many years she has hidden from herself. A vulnerable, somewhat brittle girl, Susannah is tormented by a sense of intransigence; most pressing is how to navigate her way out of the thorny world of Julian and Kit Forsythe, a yuppie Chicagoan couple whose baby she has offered to carry.
Following Susannah’s agreement to be a surrogate, it is clear that life for Julian and Kit and Susannah has become
more complicated than first imagined. Susannah’s pregnancy has only added more tension to many of the issues that already seem to be plaguing the
Forsythes' stressful marriage. While the willful, self-centered Kit has begun to suffocate Susannah, Julian
seems to suffer most as he battles his increasing attraction to Susannah while aching over his insecurities as a new father.
While Julian is forced to constantly humor his status-conscious wife, trying to appease her increasingly erratic and diva-like ways, Susannah can do little else but escape the murky mix of this couple’s perfect life.
She takes off for the desert, away from Julian’s ever-increasing - and sometimes sexual - attentions, and Kit’s fawning motherhood in the form of her energetic,
crushing concern as she seeks to impose her world vision so oppressively on Susannah.
With characters who bound off each other like “particles in atoms and buoys in a lake,” this “bookstore clerk without a boyfriend or a husband or anything better to do than to carry some strangers’ child” is thrust, almost overnight, into the hands of Marlon Garland and his crotchety wife, Char, the elderly owners of Thunder Lodge.
Here, at this “godforsaken fleabag bag," much of the background drama in this novel plays out as Susannah, hot, tired, stranded and alone, finds herself boiling over with a compulsive mix of confusion and false expectations.
Luckily, however, allies are found in the unlikeliest of places. Susannah unexpectedly finds herself befriending Car and Marlon’s mentally challenged son, the handsome Tim, who collects pebbles and vegetation
and swims in the grotto, a heavily chlorinated rectangle of brackish water rafted with bugs that lies
at the back of the motel. With Susannah’s defenses down, the sheltered Tim, ever hidden “in a kind of fog,” becomes one of her most trusted friends.
Similarly, eleven-year-old fellow guest Frankie, who hides her gender confusion behind her spats with her aunt Dicey, is also drawn to the vulnerable Susannah. It comes as no surprise that Susannah, Frankie and Tim are labeled the “confused outsiders,” becoming the consummate rebels and embarking on a miniature road trip to taste the freedom long been denied them.
Her heart screaming in her chest, Susannah has thrown away too much and too many things that she suddenly wants back. Reckless and free-spirited, she realizes that if she lives by a different set of rules, she can keep going west, heading toward the fog of the Californian coast where Julian and Kit will never be able to find her. Soon, however, it becomes clear that the collateral damage of Susannah’s sudden decision to take off is going to catch up with her. The author’s depictions of Susannah’s precise intimate failings drive this story; like the other characters, she seems to be drifting in an impossible conundrum, a girl terrified of becoming a young mother. The isolation of Thunder Lodge itself is a powerful symbol for her predicament.
The highway roars like an ocean with the thundering sky, and the threat of certain rain
hangs over the proceedings. The characters all eventually intersect at this dilapidated motel where the dreaded, centripetal climax plays out involving the strange fates of Tim and Frankie, who still desperately wants to be a boy even though she’s biologically half a girl.
Amy Shearn delves deep into her protagonists’ inner lives, encapsulating their hopes,
dreams and insecurities while rendering their plight amid the stark beauty and vivid images of the American Southwest.
Her complicated narrative cycles back in time, bringing alive Susannah’s life in Chicago and the circumstances that led her to pull up outside
the Thunder Lodge. A testament to the resilience of the human condition, the author’s highly stylized prose attracts
most as she and her characters navigate their way through this rocky, parched land of
perpetual dry heat.