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Off Course

By Michelle Huneven

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

287 pages, $26

By Karen Brady

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

There is no place for right or wrong in Michelle Huneven’s striking new novel, “Off Course” – but there is plenty of room for obsession, denial and risk on its increasingly unsettling pages.

There is also room for humor and for often breathtaking descriptions of California mountain life as “Off Course” comes close to lifting Huneven from the rolls of fine-authors-with-popular-appeal to the shorter list of those with some real literary chops.

I say “comes close to” as there are chapters here that lag, and a main character, Quinn, whose draw, sexual and otherwise, never quite translates. But then, life often lags (for the young) – and Quinn has only to appeal to our protagonist Cressida for the fixation to begin, for Cressida to veer “off course, into the woods.”

This happens swiftly: “His kiss set off a whirr in her mind: What about Sylvia and mated for life? Does he know what he’s doing? The kiss felt premeditated and deliberate – a decision he’d made. Given the choice, she would have preferred (his brother). But Quinn had chosen her. How had she never noticed his eyes were such a strange pale green? She checked herself for guilt, or at least compunction about kissing someone’s husband, but nothing flared. He was the one who had made – and was now breaking – vows. Perhaps Sylvia should have paid him more attention. Been more sympathetic…”

Cressida may seem cold here (and she is) but she is also complex – and seeking, in her late 20s, a path to love and fulfillment while attempting to complete her dissertation (on the economics of art) during a stay at her parents’ vacation cabin in the shadow of the Sierras. At first she is thinking primarily of “the diss” – but she is lonely, by herself on the mountain off season.

Enter one Jakey Yates – who comes into her life before Quinn Morrow, Jakey being the expansive, divorced owner of the nearby Meadows Lodge where he also cooks and schmoozes with all and sundry.

Jakey, at 40-something an “older man,” is unreliable in matters of the heart – and Cress, as she is called for short, soon sees this. But Jakey is also convenient, and fun, and – for a while – always available.

After sex one day, he asks about her name (a marvelous touch here): “‘Cressida … What kind of a name is that?’ Well. Her mother had come to Los Angeles as a young actress and landed a role in an equity waiver production of Troilus and Cressida … her mother had received wonderful reviews … ‘So basically, I’m named for her best role. Her finest hour.’ ”

As Shakespeare’s Cressida was an unfaithful mistress – so Huneven’s Cressida will appear to be when the carpenter-farmer Quinn claims her attention: “Cress wasn’t afraid. She’d handled Jakey when he turned out to be a compulsive philanderer. Once she knew the facts, a door had shut in her chest. The same grasp on reality would keep her safe from Quinn … But she did feel for him. He cast sorrow and loneliness like trees cast shade. He was in dire need of comfort. As it happened, she could use some companionship too.”

Thus the stage is set for Cress’ and Quinn’s own Greek tragedy – one that will be played out against a backdrop of jaw-dropping California nature. There is a bear that comes around Cress’ cabin, and Quinn tells her of a bear his mother killed when he was a boy: “In the cold mercury vapor glow, he glittered as if covered with glass beads. He entered the yard on all fours, but when he got twenty-five, thirty feet away, he rose up, stuck his blunt old snout in the air, sniffing and sniffing, his head in a bright cloud of steam from his own breath. They got a big whiff of him then – man! was he rank! – and Quinn’s mother fired both barrels.”

At one point, Cress describes the changing landscapes of the area as she and Quinn “drove down through the seasons. The old snow freighting the branches melted as in a time-lapse film until, at 5,000 feet, the trees were clean, with soiled white patches only in the shade … Hundreds of feet below, the Hapsaw roared its fatted winter roar. The boulder-strewn hills around Sawyer had greened with new grass. The trunks of oaks were black with moisture, the leaves shiny-clean. They drove by the golf course and stark, manmade Glory Lake, where white houseboats cluttered the water like so many floating carports.”

For months, and then years, Cress and Quinn continue their symbiotic coupling – Quinn at one juncture deciding to leave his wife, later reconsidering. Cress’ doctoral thesis stays unfinished while she waitresses at a local resort.

“Off Course,” in this sense, may be read as a tale of forbidden love – but it is, on another level, an intense psychological study of a years-long interlude in an intelligent young woman’s life that will, for good or ill, shape all of her life to come. And that is far from all: Huneven’s buildup here is subtle but she also shows us the heartrending fissures in the families and friendships of both Cress and Quinn – he mainly with his shy, pretty wife Sylvia; she chiefly with her parents and, in particular, her mother (significantly also named Sylvia). There is damage, and Cress knows it (if, in Huneven’s rendering, only in terms of herself):

“She did have psychological problems, Cress would be the first to admit it: obsession, depression, loss of affect, anhedonia. And – not to be melodramatic here – she couldn’t quite locate herself anymore … except through the filter of him …”

An old story, perhaps, but also one rampant for the times – Reagan is president, Princess Grace and Glenn Gould have died and the sexual revolution is about to wane (as the threat of AIDS becomes real). Cress and her friend Tillie go to see an unnamed movie (featuring a mistress “who was up against the blameless bland wife and family itself, that fortress of sanctified virtue”) – and, while Cress identifies with the mistress, we recognize the film as “Fatal Attraction.”

Huneven’s earlier novels include the well-received “Blame” – another tale of a not-entirely-likable young woman, this one a party girl with a Ph.D., a professor who goes to prison after being convicted of killing a mother and child while driving drunk.

“Off Course” may not have as many twists and turns as “Blame” – but its venture into the human psyche is far more profound. Even when Quinn “is no longer listing in her direction,” Cress wavers:

“…she wanted out, she really did. At least part of her did. More and more, it seemed, she was in a civil war with herself, the side that had dug in versus the side that wanted out. The dug-in side was like a steel I-beam sunk deep in unconscious muck. The wanting out side was like that sheep of (Quinn’s) uncle’s, tangled deep in the brambles, bleating weakly for someone, anyone to come and yank her free.”

Huneven goes deep here, taking us so far “Off Course” with Cress that, in the end, we want nothing more than to help her.

Karen Brady is a former News columnist.