MAY 18, 2015
DURING THE MEMORY of a party — a rare carefree moment in Heidi Pitlor’s new domestic noir, The Daylight Marriage — Lovell Hall is asked about his favorite storm. The climate scientist answers easily, eager to discuss a favorite topic in an otherwise awkward social setting. His answer is telling:
Hurricane Betsy, back in ’sixty-five, just clobbered the coast. They called it Billion Dollar Betsy — it was the first hurricane to cause a billion dollars’ worth of damage. It was so bad they took the name Betsy off the list of rotating names for storms. What makes it interesting is that it was really erratic and intense and no one could predict when it would hit, so nobody was prepared.
At that moment, Lovell’s study of hurricanes and tornadoes parallels the storm that will soon hit his family — one that he will not be able to forecast or classify. The violence of Billion Dollar Betsy, its unpredictability, its intensity, mirrors the central conflict of Pitlor’s novel: a marital spat that escalates into something much larger.
Lovell and Hannah Hall have been married for 16 years. They have a home outside of Boston and two children whom they love, 15-year-old Janine and eight-year-old Ethan. Lovell is a scientist, while Hannah works part-time in a flower shop, and their lives at first seem relatively normal. But the marriage that is described is one defined by what is lacking: Hannah feels trapped in a life lacking purpose, lacking excitement, spontaneity, and freedom, and Lovell feels inadequate, unloved, and underappreciated. The novel begins with Lovell returning home late from work, missing the dinner he’d promised he’d be home for, only to discover that Hannah hasn’t paid an important bill. This unpaid bill sparks a fight, and we learn quickly that Lovell and Hannah have subsisted for years in a marriage poisoned by resentment and dissatisfaction.
The next day, Lovell discovers that Hannah has disappeared. She is gone, and no one knows anything about her last hours before vanishing. Despite the premise, this is not a murder mystery novel (although some of that is present). We do not get the comfort of a colorful detective to guide us through the investigation, to hand us clues that paint a portrait of exactly what happened. We do not get to triumphantly claim we knew all along who the culprit was. Instead, we are given two stories tangled together as intimately as husband and wife — and yet so far apart that the distance is painful and unconquerable. The Daylight Marriage is more a novel about what isn’t there than what is.
Much of the tension stems from how the fight plays out in the narrative, which is told from Lovell’s point of view. Despite the “toxic stew” of emotions, the fight between Lovell and Hannah feels more like the aftermath of a bomb explosion — that sudden intense silence that follows a violent event. But we aren’t shown any actual violence beyond a frustrated kick to a bed frame. It is the lack of realized anger that is profound, characterized sharply by the image of a broken bottle of Chanel perfume that Lovell “accidentally” breaks when he retreats to the bathroom. Yes, they say unkind things to each other. They yell and lash out and resent the hell out of each other — but then there is only silence and that broken perfume bottle, with just the impression of a violent act. It feels like an omission, as if there is a blip in the story and it skipped over an important part, or that maybe everyone is overreacting and they need a good night’s sleep. But, the next day Hannah disappears, and we are left questioning what really happened that night.
The strength of The Daylight Marriage lies in its structure, coupled with a clear, piercing cadence in each sentence. The story is told in alternating chapters, jumping ahead 30 hours to when Lovell reports Hannah missing (after Hannah fails to pick up her son for his orthodontic appointment) and then switching to Hannah the day after the fight, leading to the inevitable point of no return. Hannah’s story inches along, and almost hour by hour we become privy to the vulnerability that proves to be her undoing. With Lovell, the sense of the crushing truth, that unflinching shine of daylight on his marriage, builds with each passing page until the truth becomes unavoidable. The unspent violence is palpable, permeating Lovell’s story, wrapped up as he is in his personal denial, leading one to view him as an unreliable narrator. More questions arise with each passing chapter: What did Lovell do? What was going through Hannah’s mind? Who was she running to? Or was she running away? The disappearance of Hannah is the driving force of the novel, the mystery revealed painfully in the quiet, negative spaces of Hannah’s day.
Hannah received the bottle of Chanel No. 5 as a gift from a close friend, someone that links back to those days when Hannah believed she was happier, more carefree. She can never afford that perfume now. She can never be that person who flies to Paris to buy perfume, but at one time she was that person. Or she thinks she was. We learn she was engaged before to a different man who broke her heart, and a large part of her longs for that long-ago Hannah, the woman who said yes to a wild and unwise proposal and then made love in a semi-public beach. After the fight, with the scent of the perfume lingering, Hannah sees only what she is lacking in her life, plagued by memories of that other man she loved, and that day on the beach when, if things had gone differently, she could have had a better life than the one she has now.
Hannah may seem spoiled, but it is clear that she has been sliding into a depression for years. In fact, as I read The Daylight Marriage, I was strongly reminded of the wife in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, a study of a woman’s descent into depression and madness, or even Sue Bridehead from Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, who dislikes the institution of marriage and sex so greatly that she escapes through a bedroom window. While these are extreme in comparison to Hannah Hall’s situation, she does feel suffocated by Lovell — trapped by one fateful choice, a rebound relationship 16 years ago. She longs for a connection with her husband and tries many ways to create that intimacy, but Lovell continually chooses to retreat behind his work, buffering himself from her intensity.
Lovell is bookish and quiet and wholly different from Hannah. When they first meet, due to a chance encounter, he is overwhelmed by her beauty, and, still recovering from her previous breakup, she is at first charmed by this. But as Pitlor divulges in seamless flashbacks, Hannah and Lovell are an ill-matched pair. Lovell admires his wife’s beauty and comments on it often, but it is as if her beauty is as deep as he is willing to go to connect with her. Coming from a socially awkward academic family, he constantly feels inferior and gauche with Hannah and her family and friends. He is a scientist; he studies storms from a distance, unable to get close, preferring to remain at his work or retreat to his computer rather than be constantly reminded of everything that is lacking in him as a husband.
Like his fascination with storms, which he studies through charts and data and graphs, Lovell keeps himself apart from almost everyone. His daughter Janine, who predictably does not handle the disappearance of her mother well, is the only person who can shake Lovell out of his tightly controlled shell. A sensitive teenager, she has a better read on the state of her parents’ marriage than either of them. She witnesses enough of the fight on that fateful night to frighten her. She tries to ignore it, as she and her brother and father wait day by day for Hannah to return, or for news from the police investigation, but the fear and knowledge eat away at her. At one point, Janine asks her father,
“Is that — was what you did that night like domestic violence?”
“Janine, I didn’t touch her. No matter how angry I was, I would not have hurt her. Or you. I’d never hurt any of you. That’s not who I am. I can’t believe I even have to tell you these things.”
“Well, you sure as hell touched her perfume and our walls. It sure as shit sounded violent to me. You sure said some nasty things to her.”
Janine’s questions indicate a greater level of violence than was actually there. It adds to Lovell’s unreliability. Every day following Hannah’s sudden disappearance, Lovell struggles to maintain his buffered distance from the roiling emotions at play. But Janine does not let her father retreat. Her anger is sharp and cutting, and Lovell tries to brush off her accusations in much the same way he discounted Hannah’s attempts to connect with him; the result is that he nearly loses Janine as well. For Lovell, his daughter’s anger, her confusion and palpable fear of him, is more frightening than the unexplained loss of his wife.
Pitlor’s The Daylight Marriage is a tense and bitter read. Dread builds. Unspent violence multiplies in the dark, leaving us to wonder: What is the true horror in this story? Is it waking up to a missing spouse and all the terrible things that could mean? Or is it that one impulsive decision can result in an unalterable fate? When I finished reading The Daylight Marriage, my thoughts first turned to the title, wanting to examine its significance, struck as I was by the profound sense of loss and regret that resulted in the events of the novel. It made me think of this marriage as a set of darkened closeted rooms where the characters must strain to see the corners and can only know their way around by touch or feel, until with violence the curtains are drawn back and that clean and brutal light shines in. Everything laid bare, the good and the bad.