I was so impressed by Huneven’s story of thwarted love that I finished it in a single day. The author brings alive her grandiose, vibrant images of the Sierras—specifically Shale Mountain, where a disgruntled mélange of characters eke out an existence in the region’s small towns and villages. It is the early 1980s, and these are the people who will come to have a very special niche in this world. Here Cressida Hartley rents her parents ramshackle A-frame and sets up her typewriter on a card table in the living room. Here she can finally embark on her ambitious prospectus: her dissertation on the economics of the art world.
In the voice of Cressida, personal emotional turmoil is rendered simple and complete, providing the perfect vehicle for Huneven’s intuitive exploration of extra-marital love, the destruction of a marriage, the beginnings of an affair, and her heroine’s bitter involvement with a flawed “man’s man” who is hopelessly desirable. To Cressida’s detriment, she refuses to take the advice from best friend Tillie from Pasadena or from her parents, Sylvia and Sam Hartley, who are building a new A-frame nearby: “a married man will never leave his wife and family.”
In a moment of shocked recognition, Cressida decides against moving to Minneapolis with her grad-school boyfriend. She travels instead to the Sierras’ familiar roads and into the secure bosom of her mother and father who clearly love her but have grown weary of their vibrant, self-obsessed daughter who veers “off course” into the woods and into the arms of big, hairy, affectionate Jakey Yates, the “undisputed king of the mountain” and divorced owner of notorious Meadows Lodge. She may be young, but Cressida is diligent and strung tight with the tension of her personal failures. Predictably she falls for free-wheeling Jakey, who is acting out after a long and failed marriage. Cressida can’t quite relinquish “the great crush of Jackey’s body,” or the “tidal pleasure” when he roars her name—even when he turns out to be a compulsive philanderer and leaves her feeling as if she’s metaphorically been led up a glorious, carefree mountainside.
Telling her tale in Cressida’s voice, Huneven draws us easily into the narrative of how a chance meeting eventually impacts not just the lead character's entire life but those around her as well. Through local contractor Rick Garsh (who spends his hours jockeying for whatever money and status can be eked from this small community), Cressida meets carpenter brothers Caleb and Quinn Morrow. Still reeling from Jackey (and despite her qualms about getting involved with an older man), Quinn somehow gives Cressida comfort. She finds unexpected solace in his aging, swarthy skin, his rocky temper, and “his creased, darkening brow with all the sadness.”
Almost despite herself—and perhaps in part because of her “daddy complex”—Cressida is inexplicably drawn to Quinn, gradually coming to believe that without him she can’t go on. Cressida’s life, of which the reader will soon share the most intimate sexual and emotional details, is further complicated by a long-distance relationship with her sister, Sharon, who half-heartedly begs Cressida to visit her in London. But she’s also hijacked on all sides by the tedium and physical exhaustion of her restaurant work, the challenge of competing with Quinn’s wife for his love and attention, and her father’s parsimonious fears and obsessions that have imprinted her with thought patters indistinguishable from the mindset of a trained economist.
Frankly, nothing out-of-the-ordinary happens in Off Course. Huneven’s story is one of commonplace adultery, of cuckolding and hypocrisy, of transparency and guilelessness, of the kind of love triangle that happens all around us every day, whether or not we notice or stop to think about it. What makes the book so interesting is Huneven’s ability to get so deeply inside the head of a girl like Cressida, a girl who is not being honest with herself even as she tries to rationalize her involvement with a man like Quinn. What makes her such a dislikable—and compelling—character is that before she takes up with Quinn, Cressida knows he has a wife (and, perhaps even more importantly, children who need him), but she gives little credence to their needs. She wants Quinn for herself, and when she gets him, she’s rapacious in her obsession. Guilt is more of a side issue for her.
Essential to the tale is Huneven’s portrayal of a selfish, flawed individual, devoid of compassion let alone the ability to love on her own terms. Through her textured prose, we come to feel the natural beauty of the Sierras. We inhabit these insular, isolated cabin communities where everyone knows everyone else’s business and where the locals prove all too quick to judge. Many of the those who befriend Cressida wonder why such an otherwise bright, educated woman has put herself in this situation and why she’s capitulated to the words and actions of such a wounded man-child. It all comes back the old “dogged confusions and crisscrossed tracks” of Cressida’s future. At least her time at The Meadows gives her “an adventure in love,” even if a new landscape beckons in a different direction.
Where does this story of loss, love, adultery, and blended, dysfunctional marriages all lead? Huneven seems to say it leads nowhere. Like real life, there’s no happily-ever-after or all-tied-up-in-a-bow finale. Still, Cressida’s denouement left me feeling unsettled, as if she’s still grappling for a closure of sorts. It’s as though the outcome, such a crucial part of a story, was placed alongside the beautiful setting of the Sierras, a place that exists far beyond my or even Cressida’s fractured, blurred vision of happiness.