Lydia Millet
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Buy *Magnificence* by Lydia Milletonline

Lydia Millet
W.W. Norton
256 pages
November 2012
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Magnificence.

Beginning just after the events of Ghost Lights, Susan Lindley is mired in a sort of drunken haste, her ill-timed existence stifled by her strained marriage as she and her daughter Casey arrive at LAX to meet her long-lost boss T and her estranged husband, Hal. Unable to fully comprehend Hal’s inexplicable demise in Central America, Susan finds herself lost in the irony of life’s sudden change and any devotion she once had for the painstaking memory of her years with Hal.

Millet expertly develops Susan, placing her in an anguished half-light of passive resistance, making her a voyeur to all but the least cynical while also portraying her as an enigmatic love-object who goes her own way only to frolic in drunken embraces with a series of lovers. She’s plagued by guilt that she effectively murdered Hal through her own selfishness and neglect.

Typically willful and stubbornly ignoring the fact that her gestures are compromised, Casey is intent to continue at her controversial job as a phone sex worker, a position that worries Susan even as she finds her own existence going from the “familiar to the alien.” Convinced that she’s a bad mother and “a slut,” determined to surrender to a pervasive melancholy, Susan fanatically searches for a survival tactic and a sly, indulgent freedom. Throwing her into a shroud of self-absorption, Hal's tragedy has forced Susan to bring into question her own self-identity.

There are potent forces in play, not the least of which is Hal’s discovery of Susan having sex with a coworker on the floor of her office (which in turn precipitated the events in Ghost Lights). Feeling torn between the chaos of growth and change, “the mess of life, the stew and whirl of micro-organisms,” Susan calls a local real estate agent and puts her Santa Monica house up for sale, but not before she gets the surprising news that she’s been gifted a house in Pasadena by a great uncle who died a few months back.

In the dim streaks of light, the mansion is a museum of taxidermy. Startlingly elegant and quite beautiful, at its center is a collection of crouching, leaping, preening animals frozen in poses with watchful, blind eyes. In this house of “ghost prey, ghost predators, and innocent killers,” all seem trapped in a cavernous dining room with dark, wide ceilings where dogs and foxes lurk. As Susan walks the rooms, seeing “magicians in a strange Goth bordello," she feels exhilarated. The house gives her new life even when her loneliness swells and her guilt pulses at the base. As the evening air cools, Susan fears her cousins' designs on her windfall and is hesitant to let T’s mother, Angela, stay along with her book-club friends, a group of quirky, dementia-ridden, aging women.

The heart of the tale is the beauty of Millet’s language, her prose embedded in an elegantly written story that allows the reader to understand how loss and change affect our relationships with each other. Millet meshes her modern fairy tale with the discoveries uncovered by Susan as she researches into the mansion's shadowy basement recesses and its fragrant, wild garden. As Susan and her new lover, Jim, spend many listless nights, readers are given a story of long twists and turns, some of which are satisfyingly anticipated and others which are slightly ensconced in too much speculation and happenstance.

Exploring attributes of loyalty, survival, and retribution and focusing on the interplay between mother and daughter, lover and muse, the author details Susan’s journey of endurance, her book a portrait of the life of a woman who has finally found the courage to live more fully.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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