[Note: We've simultaneously published a video interview of Michelle Huneven at the LA Times Festival of Books.]
ONE NIGHT late on an early 20-something birthday, a friend and I were sappy and high-altitude drunk in our mountain town, and she gave me a handmade card recounting the reasons for our eccentric, wine-drenched friendship. “Because Fez counts as your community service,” she’d written in crayon. Fez (not his real name) was an Argentinian busser at the sushi restaurant where I checked wealthy Russians’ fur coats and regular people’s parkas as a second job.
This was in a town in which the man-to-woman ratio was such that the guys used to say about any woman from 20 to 50: “She’s not your girlfriend now because it’s just not your turn.” When I first came to town I didn’t like hearing this. But then I fell into the cycle too. It seemed to be the fate of any newly arrived female.
During the winter of Fez, I was also juggling a sushi chef, bartender, and waiter from the same restaurant. The waiter, after he gave up trying to mate with me in the coatroom, had decided to side with shy, brown-eyed Fez. Because, you know, what goes around comes around. “He has to go back to Argentina,” the waiter said. “Think of him. It would count as your community service for a year.”
As a dissatisfied 20-something, I didn’t escape my time in Aspen without getting stuck on a couple of guys, one of them important, who seemed happy to leave me hanging for no apparent reason.
Everything in Aspen seemed to leave me hanging: the job (which I loved but soon began to bore me); the seasons (which seemed like an eternal return of the same); the guy I was in and out of love with for most of my time there (I’ll call him Tom, since I’m on a nickname roll). I spent most of my four years feeling drifty and pretty lonely. But then I’d take another trek into the stunning wilderness or ski through another miraculous winter, and convince myself it would be okay.
Despite all the beauty around me, though, I was never better than okay. So I left.
Cressida Hartley, Professor Hartley, Cress, the dissatisfied 20-something heroine of Michelle Huneven’s latest novel, Off Course, is a lot like my old self. She moves to a spectacular California mountain town, fresh from her PhD coursework at the University of Iowa. She’s set herself a deadline: a few months in her parents’ cabin, where she’ll finish her dissertation on the market economics of fine art. She wants to come out ahead of her peers. “She would not become one of the aging lurkers around the Econ Department who hoped for sections of Intro to teach while the tenure track shimmered eternally on the far side of two hundred pages.”
I moved to Aspen fresh from a failed journalism stint abroad. I was going to stay for one year, during which I would: read all the time; teach myself how to write decent fiction; and work an interesting, not-too-demanding job for an amazing nonprofit. After that, I promised myself, I’d jump back into journalism armed with a completed novel. (Unlike Cress, I wasn’t paying attention to the market forces of anything, clearly.) But then I got there. Hiking, skiing, and drinking were easier and more fun than writing, and my plans were put on hold.
So needless to say, Cressida Hartley’s problems in Off Course were relatable. The book opens in the early ’80s. Cress is 28, newly single, and restless and very soon bored by the market economics of art. There are nicer things than dissertations — like nights with Jakey. He’s the womanizing proprietor of the local lodge who sweeps her off her feet with free drinks and a drive through the woods for quick, thrilling forest sex. To Jakey she explains her name: Cressida, Shakespeare’s “scheming nympho who flirts with everyone and sleeps with the enemy. Even in Shakespeare’s time her name was synonymous with prostitute. So thanks a lot, Mom. Why not just name me Whore Hartley?”
Why not? Let the dramatic foreshadowing begin.
For Cress, it’s not just men that cause her trouble. It’s the place itself — the mountains and the way they reshape her life. Quinn Morrow, the older married man she falls in love with, says early on that “this place has had its way with us.” It has its way with her.
And at first you get it: Huneven is a regional writer in the best sense; she transforms her characters and moves plot through setting. (Think of Kingsolver or Stegner.) She grew up in Southern California, and her novels are saturated in geography, whether she’s writing about bohemian Los Feliz (Jamesland), country-club Pasadena and the wilderness areas of Malibu (Blame), or the fictional Santa Bernita Valley with its river and citrus (Round Rock). Her settings work like controlled experiments on her characters, and maybe this is what makes her stories, even about the most ordinary lives, so rich and suspenseful: place defines her characters as much as personality or fate.
The suspense in Off Course is about whether or how Cress will survive the mountains and her disastrous love affair. By the time she meets Quinn, she’s already losing herself. She’s put her dissertation on hold. To keep a façade of financial independence while living largely off her parents, she works part-time for Reggie, the local contractor. She’s just broken up with Jakey, with whom she’s sustained an affair for several months, after finding out she’s just one of his many women.
Then she has her first glimpse of Quinn, a craft carpenter temporarily living with his brother, Caleb, in a job-site trailer not far from her cabin.
Up ahead on the road, the older Morrow Brother, Quinn, in his crimped hat, walked alone, his gait oddly graceful, as if he were crossing a narrow beam or tight rope. Cress trailed him for a mile. He didn’t look back once.
He didn’t look back once. And she doesn’t either. He moves quickly from an acquaintance to friend to lover to obsession. She gets to know him as a real man who grew up on nearby Mount Noah and knows the wilderness inside and out, who can catch fish out of season without a rod, who’s haunted by his father’s recent suicide and nursing wounds within an unfulfilling marriage.
And this is where it gets suspenseful, when Cress seems to cede control over her own happiness. This is where circumstance and landscape turn fateful. Cress and Quinn might do everything in their power to convince themselves that they are right for each other, but the mountains and the nearby town of Sparkville (where Quinn’s wife and family live) and all the extenuating people and circumstances that go with it will thwart them.
In that way, Off Course is a very sad story.
As a child, Cress had a second sense about the cabin, the mountains, and how they’d trap her. Built on the cheap by her frugal father when she and her sister were kids, the A-frame meant isolation from her friends and the altitude meant headaches. The meadows meant loneliness. Now that she’s a woman, the mountain and town mean pleasure: sex, hiking, sketching, cooking, socializing at the lodge, and evenings of cards and bourbon with her favorite neighbors. On a hike early on, rambling through one of her childhood haunts, she comes across a warning that prompts a memory:
STAY BACK FROM EDGE
DO NOT THROW OR ROLL ROCKS — HIKERS BELOW
Once, a little boy had run too far out on the rock and, unable to stop, tumbled to his death — but this might have been an apocryphal story to frighten children, and make them cautious. Still, the lure of the edge was strong; visitors invariably inched as far down the rock face as they dared, often going farther than Cress could ever stomach.
The mountains, it turns out, are full of portents: like the visit by a bear (neither “handsome or hygienic”) who’s lured by the smell of Cress’s cooking and tries to break into the cabin. “Her heart, which recognized danger, began to race. But when had she ever been so close?”
She doesn’t heed any of the warnings even though, to her credit, she senses she should. She and Quinn start spending more and more time together on trails and rides to and from job sites while his wife is down in Sparkville, waitressing and taking care of his kids. Cress remains delusional enough to think she can sleep with Quinn and control her feelings for him, even as it becomes clear he’s subsuming her life and that even their most casual interactions are loaded with extra meaning.
He stopped short, pointing to a scrap of red plastic embedded in the dirt. He crouched and dug out a Swiss Army knife. “Lookee here,” he said. “This represents real money. Just lying on the ground.”
He rubbed the pocketknife on his jeans, and gave it to her. […] “You got to pay me for it,” he said. “Or it’s bad luck.”
“Bad luck how?”
“Give a knife, sever a friendship,” he said.
She dug in her jeans pocket, handed over a nickel.
Throughout the book, Cress will always pay a higher price than Quinn for their love. She gives up on her dissertation completely. They embark on a full-on affair and stop playing it safe. Reggie, her sometime boss, catches them at a job site and fires her. She takes a catering job in Sparkville, all but admitting that she’ll never get that PhD: that her life as it was has lost its purpose, which is growing increasingly dependent on Quinn. When his wife, Sylvia, finds out, she takes him back but turns the whole town against Cress.
Meanwhile, her dependence on Quinn leads her deeper into no place. He leaves Sylvia and their kids, proposes to Cress, and then goes back to his wife. He leaves again, and comes back again. He needs her! He loves her! He wants her! And for a while, that’s enough. She’ll give up her entire self for a little bit of him.
“There’s still some Gypsy in you,” Cress’s grad school boyfriend had told her. You watch that Gypsy fade away, and — like her increasingly frustrated family and friends — you want her to get better. At the same time, how can she? The mountains have become her predestination. And it’s not as if Quinn fares much better. Neither of them can find much sense of meaning or hope outside of their love. But they don’t have a future together, either.
She would always wish that some small scrap of self had reared up and saved her. But that is not what happened.
Cress lets herself go in the way of smart women who decide they’ll give up an unknown, scary future — which they don’t have the experience to understand, much less define — for a sweeter, simpler, more gratifying now: woods, mountains, big sky, big love, and manly men. The problem is, a simple life rarely remains simple, and complications creep in for Cress. She idles away the mid-’80s (missing out on shoulder pads and power suits), fighting the knowledge that she’s cut out for something more.
Finally, Cress wearies of solitude and traumatic obsession. Ultimately, she’ll leave Sparkville and Quinn won’t.
Years later, she meets up with an old acquaintance from the mountain. He tells her what’s happened to Quinn, how lost he is, how unhappy he became. She’s dodged a bullet, the old friend says. “But dodging a bullet, Cress thought, described a fleeting instant, as if she’d pulled her head aside in the nick of time when, in fact, no matter how often she’d put herself smack in the line of fire, she’d failed to get herself shot.”