This novel is a multi-layered view of one man’s journey through his faltering marriage and his journey back into the daylight of forgiveness. Underpinned throughout is the psychological isolation of betrayal. Donald, a successful optometrist, lives a contented life in a small town just outside of Boston with his wife, Viv, and his two young children, Marcus and Trina. He’s happy to support his household and proud of “egalitarian marriage” to Viv, an unapologetic and committed liberal who has a passion for horses.
For Donald, these are the years when “everything worked,” when he could count on the loyalty of his family, long before his father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
His father’s death ultimately opens up the chasm in Donald’s marriage. Looking back over the months that followed his
father’s departure, Donald sees that he “lost track of certain things.” Donald laments his failure to take seriously Viv’s passion for a horse called Mercury, a gorgeous, five-year-old dapple-gray thoroughbred.
Just like Donald’s model eye, “twelve times life-size,” Livesey trains her own lens on Donald’s close quarters. As Donald spends his days peering into the eyes of his patients, studying charts and lenses, the author sets her own sights on the interior lives of Donald and Viv. Donald is enthralled by Viv’s intelligence and ambition, but part of him worries whether there is anything that he loves as much as Viv loves her cherished horses. With Mercury boarded at Windy Hill, a stable owned by Viv’s best friend, Claudia, Viv becomes
increasingly distracted, spending her days (and some nights) with the horse while neglecting her family. A series of break-ins at Windy Hill accelerate the drama, along with a plea from Viv to make the stables safe. At first, Viv decides not to
tell her husband that she’s spending their own money on updated security equipment. But when Donald discovers that the bill was paid with their joint credit card, he finds himself questioning Viv’s motives and honesty.
Painfully, on page after page, Donald recounts his myopia: how he couldn’t see that Viv had chosen a horse over his family, and how he
did nothing to lure her back. When Donald discovers there’s discrepancy between Claudia’s and Viv’s stories of the burglary, he realizes that his wife is probably adjusting the truth so that she can be with Mercury. At the time, it seems like a small subterfuge,
the kind of white lie that anyone might tell. Donald soon finds himself flooded by sense of weary nostalgia when Claudia shares with him her reservations about Mercury and Hilary, the horse’s new owner. He aches for something in his past that is perhaps lost to his present life.
As Donald remembers his childhood in Edinburgh, place that he had particularly loved, he finds himself marking the end of his time in his marriage, caught between fidelity to the law and loyalty to his family.
Moving between Donald and Viv’s first-person perspectives, Livesey combines sentimentality with violence in an unpretentious but often heartbreaking tale. Mercury is about family stories and how they shift based on the person who tells them, how they can slip from your grasp and become part of someone else’s narrative. From the outset, we know that something terrible happened at Windy Hill.
To her credit, Livesey never lets us quite grasp where the innate truth of the story might lie. Viv admits that she cannot list all of the factors that contributed to the events of that night in early March when, as swiftly as if someone had “severed her optic nerve,” everything changed. From the deep snow drifts, to Mercury, to Charlie, to Donald’s best friend, Jack, trying to cope with his blindness, Viv finally acknowledges that “everyone played their parts” in the tragedy that derailed her life.
While Donald’s moral dilemmas and emotional and ethical conflicts effectively anchor the novel, the power of Mercury remains indisputable, especially for Viv. Her decision to buy a gun to protect the horse adds a shudder of menace, a reminder that even educated and overly rational people can sometimes act unpredictably. There’s also the recognition that guns can change people and make them do things they’d never normally do.
The book’s most contemporary scenes exist primarily as an entrée to Donald’s older memories, especially his friendship with Robert, a boy from his childhood in Scotland. This is perhaps Livesey’s point: that life is a series of vignettes strung loosely together, and there are moments from which the rest seem to hang, the points from which a family may never truly recover.