In 2017, Lucy Albright is working for an upscale travel magazine, but she's having a bad summer--and it's barely even started. As Lucy vacates the city for her college friend Bree's wedding, Lucy ponders the sex, the hungry expression and the raw animal need that encompassed so much of her life with Stephen. A sickness in Lucy's stomach seems to be growing worse by the minute. The familiarity of the pain creates "a nauseating déjà vu and a gut-wrenching dread" that Lucy has lived with for years.
Back in 2010--despite the hesitations of her mother, the gorgeous, aqua-eyed CJ --Lucy finds herself a transplant out of New York when she moves to California to study at Baird University. Lucy plunges into campus life: drink Absolut and whiskey and cruise boys with Bree, Pippa and Jackie. Lucy first meets Stephen at party at Wrigley's House, but their relationship is cemented on a trip to Lake Mead. Though CJ cautions restraint, Lucy seems happy with Stephen. The dark, swarthy hottie offers her a different kind of fun that she'd never be able to have back at home in Cold Spring Harbor.
As Lucy and Stephen narrate the tale, Lovering perfectly captures the anguish of a girl dealing with the upheaval of a man who lies, cheats and is prone to magnificent acts of rage. Stephen is promiscuous and daring, and his masculinity is threated first by Diana and then by Lucy. He's also plagued by creeping sense of anxiety right at the base of his brain. Only cocaine, "like a blast of cold, sweet air," can make his life come into focus. Soon Stephen is between his loyalty to Diana, whom he adores though the adoration stage never lasts long, and Lucy, who chooses to ignore what a horrible person Stephen becomes.
Lovering's story centers on Stephen's efforts to win Lucy over and on Lucy's efforts to extricate herself from Stephen's orbit. At one stage, Pippa accuses him of manipulating Lucy and warns him to stay away. But Lucy, at least for now, is the most beautiful girl Stephen has ever had the pleasure of luring into his bed. He wants to play the field and give "girls a bunch of eye-opening orgasms." Lucy quickly falls under Stephen's sexual spell: "I closed my eyes and Stephen flooded the blackness behind them, like he had all summer." From the weeks and months hanging out in her room, to the drunken and drug-fueled parties, Lucy sees her life with Stephen as a blurred image in a magnifying glass, "a memory distorted in a fishbowl"--a man who can make her spine melt "like a candlestick."
Lovering's gift for natural dialogue gives her tale a sheen of urbanity. She plays with her themes of sexual politics, from the world of Baird College to the larger universe of Lucy's family and her life back in New York. The mystery behind the accident of Lucy's childhood friend becomes a sociological study of the madness of a man determined to put his future over everything and everyone. "I didn't want to hurt people, but I could, and when I did, there was something cathartic and liberating about it." Back at Cold Spring Harbor, CJ rambles on about Lucy's behavior, calling her spoiled and ungrateful and apathetic. Lucy tells her she's in love with Stephen, but CJ has a gut feeling that Stephen doesn't appreciate her daughter. Lucy continues to resent CJ for doing the "Unforgivable Thing," a mistake that shaped much of Lucy's past.
Stephen is not the best shepherd of his well-being. He's a rake and a sociopath who seems to constantly overstep himself. Though some may think he's the aggrieved party, it is actually Lucy who gets the upward arc. As she grows more solid and self-confident, she begins to realize her dream of becoming a travel writer. Desperate to become a lawyer, Stephen thinks of nothing but his appetites and career. He sees the world for what it can give him and for what he can take from it; betrayal, shame and love are secondary hindrances. Stephen is ready to cut Lucy loose when she no longer protects, serves or amuses him. Lucy, by contrast, wants Stephen in "every crevice of her head and heart." Lovering fills up the corners of her melodrama with a roster of supporting characters: Lucy's friends and Stephen's angry ex-girlfriends, Lucy's sister, and Stephen's family, whom he angrily despises for their middle-class provincialism.
I was sucked into the voyeuristic prospect of these entitled, hedonistic students whose world I am not familiar with but was compelled to read. Like all such affairs, this one must end, but Lucy endures a lot of betrayal before Lovering brings her to a place of temporary repose. Here at Bree's wedding, Lucy might finally accept that Stephen is "just not good for her." Spinning her entertaining and provocative tale on a world of sex and lies and drugs, Lovering shows how all besotted fools of this world have, if not more fun, at least a less dreary time.