The Grift
Debra Ginsberg
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Buy *The Grift* by Debra Ginsbergonline

The Grift
Debra Ginsberg
Three Rivers Press
352 pages
August 2009
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Reading like a dark, subversive, R-rated version of Desperate Housewives, this novel is filled with characters as stifled and brittle as the hot Santa Ana winds that sweep through San Diego every fall. In a story about truth and love, clairvoyant Marina Marks runs from the stuffy heat and humidity of Florida, its heavy superstitions hanging over her like a dark cloud. Exploited by her junkie mother, who stumbled on the bright idea of pimping her daughter out as a miniature fortune-teller, Marina is an outsider who has learned to play by her own rules.

Over the years Marina has perfected her act of the unexplainable. It‘s her “woo woo visions of the future” that everyone else has so desired when all her mother desired was to extract a quick buck from Marina wherever she could find it. By nature a distrustful skeptic, Marina still doesn’t really believe that psychic ability exists at all, but when she sets up a shop in Encinitas, a wealthy suburb of San Diego, and reads the fortunes of guests at a holiday party hosted by Madeline Royal, a chain of events forces Marina to question everything she has ever known about her life and her “gift”.

As the party-goers line up outside her makeshift tent, Marina hides the tiny slivers of resentment that stab at the old wounds she thought had long been scarred over. The life of poor Madeline, Marina’s best client, is filled with worries and stresses. She’s desperate to get pregnant with her fifty-year-old husband, Andrew, who heads a wildly successful chain of jewel-making stores. A heavy drinker and a misanthropist, Andrew is resentful of his wife’s attentions to Marina, convinced that Marina is nothing but a cheap charlatan more than willing to suck off his wife's financial teat.

Another of Marina’s clients is Eddie, a sexual philanderer whose drug of choice is women. After falling into an affair with his hairstylist Cassie, who suddenly claims she’s pregnant, Eddie feels that he has done nothing to bring on the giant mess his life is in. Married to the beautiful Nina and the father of two children, Eddie comes to realize that hope and despair are perhaps “just two sides of the same coin.”

Marina also finds herself caught in the spiritual grip of Cooper, who is insanely in love with Max; but Max, a psychiatrist, just can’t admit he’s gay. When Cooper isn’t fanatically stalking Max at his office, begging for love and respect, he’s popping Xanax and drinking too much Shiraz, pleading with Marina for some sort of council because he trusts her more than anything or anyone else in his life.

Becoming ever more desperate and vicious and crude, all of Ginsberg’s characters are afraid of being alone, of love and recognition, unusual failure, pain and death. While the plot teeters toward the outrageous, and everyone gets nastier, fearful of finding out the truth about themselves and each other, Marina realizes that the unrelenting urge to explain everything away and to bring the world under her control has been her undoing.

When Gideon Black, “his teeth straight and very white, his hair thick and wavy,” mysteriously arrives and woos Marina, his presence becomes too hot, like electricity. Marina intuitively reacts to this strange man’s presence, probing for more, certain that this attractive and affable man is willing to fall in love with her: “when he touched her - she saw flashes of light and the shadows of people who weren’t there.”

Then the unthinkable happens: terrible fire results in a mysterious death, and Marina’s carefully orchestrated world of fakery begins to shatter. Her clients’ animosities are suddenly held against her - and against each other. Accused, she tries to remain unflustered, but her dreams spin out of control, becoming a warning, swirling potent mix of negativity, her mind a collection of images she can’t stop from coming in rapid succession: “the red gleam of the ring magnified a thousand times.”

In this novel that is essentially about love and how messy and uncontrolled and selfish passion can be, each despairing character is determined to draw a metaphorical gun. Central to the narrative is Marina, who throughout it all remains fascinating as she morphs and grows. Her delicate vulnerability and the shifting kaleidoscope of visions she sees before her provide the anchor in this irreverent, rather cynical melodrama of unwanted pregnancies, sexual obsessions and marital infidelities.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2008

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