Secrets and Lives
On a sunny afternoon beside a swimming pool, Marcy — just turned 15 — agrees to have an affair with Robert, the 41-year-old husband of her mother’s friend. By doing so she sets in motion a hidden process of fate that will have consequences for her and her family and friends. The affair itself is brief and seems to be a happy experience for both. But after it ends, Marcy has changed in subtle ways that even she does not recognize. The future, in turn, is affected by these changes, which spread out like ripples in calm water to touch other lives.
David Huddle’s new novel, The Story of a Million Years, is the story of seven lives and a secret that reverberates undiscovered through each of them. The reader follows Marcy from 15 to 47. Although the book revolves around her affair with Robert, Huddle does not dwell upon the details and avoids moral judgments. There is no hint of Lolita — a book that Robert has read and found “a little off-putting.” Despite the rather titillating cover — a swimsuit-clad girl — The Story of a Million Years avoids prurience. It is not an erotic book.
Instead it is a tale of lives evolving, built up gradually through the stories of those involved with the central protagonists. That moment of poolside acquiescence becomes the first thread in a web of fate that has entangled everyone who has brushed against it. The narrative is taken up, in turns, by Marcy’s husband, Allen, and daughter, Suellen; her friend Ute and Ute’s husband, Jimmy; Robert and his wife, Suzanne.
Suzanne has always suspected the truth about the affair — with consequences for Robert as well as herself — but she is the only one. For the others, only the reader can discern the way this secret both links them and pulls them apart. Allen, a self-obsessed man of action, finally discovers that his wife will always be ultimately unknowable to him. Ute marries Allen’s college buddy, Jimmy, who has always loved Marcy. Robert grows old in a marriage turned sour, constantly remembering the goodness and purity of his young lover. And Suzanne’s knowledge of the affair leads her into bitterness but also into uneasy self-awareness.
Each of Huddle’s characters is looking back from a point loosely anchored in the present. Their different voices, rendered in crisp, concisely observed tones, combine to weave a wistful, almost nostalgic paean to lives that seem simple but which are steered by a complex undercurrent. Huddle makes the point that not only are those we love unknowable — as are we ourselves — but that the myriad points of contact which shape and steer our lives are often just as obscure.
Marcy and Robert’s secret runs through each story with the shrouded energy of a ley line that only the reader can see. But its influence has impelled the characters to search their own pasts for defining moments of goodness, or at least clarity. For Ute it is the remembered kindness of a Manhattan bartender; for Allen the memory of an act he feels proved him a good father. Suzanne finds her center in a distant summer at camp, and something tender that ended in rage.
Huddle avoids making his characters annoyingly introspective, however. Their stories are about groping through the confusions of the human condition, and conclusions are offered only to the reader. In this way the different personalities remain compelling, flawed as they sometimes are. And although the book’s conclusions aren’t particularly optimistic — no easy epiphanies here, more a journey through a cloud without a flashlight — they have a convincing honesty. It takes courage to write a novel about the blinkers inflicted by life; it takes talent to make such a novel uplifting.
The Story of a Million Years is beautifully written and constructed, even though it is clearly the work of a short-story writer. At 190 pages, it is more a novella than a novel, and although the different narratives have obvious interconnections, there is perhaps a little too much autonomy to each section. But Huddle, an English professor at the University of Vermont whose short stories, poems and essays have been widely published, gives his readers the gift of omniscience; there is a simple satisfaction in knowing what motivates each heart and mind. The informing spirit here is a respect, even awe, for the humanity of each character. There are no earth-shattering events, just the unexceptional but all-important obstacles and joys encountered by us all. The fact that we are listening to narrated stories keeps us at a distance from events, but the clarity of the writing and the clear-eyed observation is immediately engaging.
This is a short book and a quick read, but not a lazy one. It is accessible not because of its simplicity but because it is so compulsively involving. Each word is something to savor. Huddle’s writing is both art and craft, and is full of the music and rhythm of poetry. The Story of a Million Years seems in part to represent a writer’s transition from one form to another. As such it holds the pleasant promise of more — and longer — books to come.