Seeking a temporary reprieve from the oppressive solitude of his apartment, a lonely divorced man takes refuge in a local bar. There Michael Coolidge encounters a stranger, a beautiful, enigmatic woman who falls into his life like a gift.
A short affair inflames first his imagination, then obsession when, a few days later, she leaves without explanation. He searches futilely for months--even walking the streets of New York City, where she lives. Without warning, Michael spots Justine in his home town, engaged in a verbal altercation with a man on the street.
son Will in tow, Coolidge intervenes in the argument on Justine’s behalf, striking the man, but the pair vanishes in their nearby car as police approach. Michael has no chance to ask Justine why she left him. When the very man he struck is later found murdered at a seedy motel, Coolidge decides to play detective, discovering a web of lies and false leads, suddenly unsure of the woman who captured his heart as she shared his bed for too few exciting days. Is Justine victim or predator? Unable to move beyond his attachment, the fabric of Michael’s life is rent, conflicting facts undermining his belief that he and Justine are meant to be together.
Did Justine target him for a romantic interlude? Or was their time together truly a respite for a troubled woman in distress? Might she be the agent of his destruction? Certainly
Coolidge makes an appealing victim, his abject loneliness broadcast in a
neighborhood bar where he carries a book for company, never anticipating meeting
a woman who completely consumes the months after her departure. In the first few chapters, Coolidge acts the perfect patsy, the typical divorced man caught up in the excitement of a sex with a beautiful stranger, lust further complicating any inclination to ask tough questions or wonder how this exotic beauty found her way into his bed. But distance, need, and the death of Justine’s male companion force Michael to take off the blinders and wonder how he has let this brief affair alter his life.
Formulating a course of action with only fragments of information, Coolidge painstakingly assembles the details of his lover’s history and contacts in New York, eventually discovering how near she has been these past agonizing months, Michael never suspecting. Though worried about Justine’s questionable past as the facts emerge, Michael refuses to acknowledge the potential damage of that relationship, returning time and again to memories of that first passionate encounter. Driven by obsession, he neglects work, rationalizes missing visits with Will, and bluffs his way into places he doesn’t belong, slowly populating his waking nightmare with individuals linked to Justine’s in one way or another. Albeit reluctant, Coolidge eventually uncovers the truth and faces his lover, stripped by excuses and pretensions.
Based on little more than a lust-fueled affair with a young woman he barely knows, Coolidge builds a virtual shrine in his imagination, a nubile beauty infusing his drab world with a new vitality. He might have let the affair become a precious memory, if not for the confrontation on the street where, once again, Justine flees. There is never much emotional weight to this female seductress, but secrets and recurring disappearances render Justine irresistible to Michael. The fact that this middle-aged man clings to the idea of Justine as “the woman he loves” is only the first jarring note among many. His actions after the death of Justine’s companion only add fuel, not passion, to a sputtering fire, the plot built on an affair between mismatched people. Neither primary character is well developed, every action directed toward the final revelation, the truth. Unfortunately, the twist at the end is predictable long before the last page, Coolidge unmasked, a middle-aged man caught up in a folie a deux.