“Amy,” by Peg Sutherland: Co-dependency, Classism, & Electronic Mailboxes

Mom Party, Y'all!
Mom Party, Y'all!

“Amy” is a harrowing story of co-dependency and denial.  It’s also a Harlequin SuperRomance!  The titular Amy, one of three sisters (each of whom Harlequin, in its infinite wisdom, deemed worthy of their own SuperRomances), is a crazy, child-like rich hippie living in classy South Florida.   She’s pretty much obsessed with family unity, to the point of constantly lying to and pressuring her family members into interacting despite their well-founded desire to see as little of each other as possible.  She’s in her early thirties, so this is part of why it’s so weird that she is always trying to engineer family reunions and reconciliations.  She’s most adept, however, at lying to herself – about other people’s feelings, her own feelings, actual facts, etc.  Part of the reason that “Amy” is a frustrating read is that, although her initial efforts at breaching people’s boundaries are sensibly rebuffed, she eventually wins people over to her bizarre world view.  As a result, by the end of the novel, you feel quite fearful about the future of Amy’s family and friends, since it’s obvious that their encouragement of her strange fantasies will result in further machinations on her part.

To begin at the beginning: Amy’s weirdo parents, the unrealistically-named Helene and Merrick, decide upon Helene’s instigation to pretend that they are having marital difficulties, in order to draw their family together (!).  Amy’s sisters, also in their thirties, are pursuing their lives in other parts of the country, and the family is not particularly close.  Helene, from whom Amy obviously inherited her craziness, wants to reconcile the girls to celebrate her and Merrick’s golden anniversary.  She thinks the best way to do this is for her and Merrick to pretend to be getting a divorce.  Then, to her mind,  everybody will freak out and come together.  Merrick thinks it’s a dumb idea, for good reasons, but she tricks him into agreement by saying it will be an “acting challenge.”  Apparently Merrick, on top of being a superrich mogul with a “trim physique” and a “silver mustache” that he likes to “dab” with “linen napkins,” is also an actor, although “he hadn’t acted in forty years or more – not since he’d turned his back on the early days of TV.”  Also, I should probably point out here that Peg Sutherland takes great care to describe Merrick and Helene as being totally hot, even though they are in their seventies.  I feel this is egregious over-writing – must Merrick, on top of being fabulously rich and famous and in love with his wife, also embody Platonic ideals of attractiveness?  This story would have been improved by 35% by making him fat.  Think it through and you’ll agree.

Anyway, Merrick and Helene embark upon their plot, acting as if they are estranged, which – weirdly – actually causes them to become estranged.  Is this a commentary on the thin line between art and life, or a mere plot device designed to give Amy something to freak out about?  Either way, this contrived premise, while not wholly devoid of dramatic potential, is utterly unexploited by Sutherland.  I could see this working in a screw-ball comedy, but Amy is not a comedy; rather, it is an unwittingly dark look into personalities damaged by a romantic obsession with nuclear family norms.

Amy becomes consumed with the rift between her parents.  Her co-worker Grace advises her to back off, but to no avail:

“‘Give it up, Amy.  Nobody appointed you to fix everybody’s life, you know.”

“That shows how little you know.  Check my wallet and you’ll find my license to fix anything that’s not working, right next to my library card.””

Note: Amy is an egomaniac.  Later:

“‘Besides,” she said, resuming their earlier conversation, “it’s not like I’m interfering with strangers.  This is Mom and Dad I’m talking about.”

“Everybody has a tiff from time to time, Amy.  It’s not the end of the world.”

“But they’re acting so weird.”

“That’s a family trait, isn’t it?”  [Note: Does Grace hate Amy?  If so, cool.]

“Not funny, Grace.  You should have seen Mom when I ran into her at the Green Market the other day.  She was fluttering.  The way she does when she’s upset.  You know, her hands, her lips, even her eyelashes.  Like a trapped bird who won’t give up the search for the way out.  All she would say was that it would blow over.”  [Note: this imagery is unexpectedly poignant.  Perhaps Helene is coming to the realization that her marriage is a hellish trap.]

They keep talking, mostly about the terrifying revelation that Merrick chose to take a walk alone (italics both mine and Amy’s.)  Apparently, choosing to walk alone is a sure sign that your marriage is pretty much over.

Now, you may have noticed that I’m half-way through this review and I’ve yet to mention Amy’s love interest, Jon Costas.  That is because he is pretty much tangential to the central romance – which is between Amy and her family.  Don’t believe me?  Jon is Amy’s sister Lisa’s ex-husband.  Sutherland tries to spin Amy’s attraction to him as something that predates Jon’s marriage to Lisa, and vice-versa; however, given the evidence at our disposal, it’s not hard to suspect that Amy pursues Jon because and simply because she wants to be closer to her sister.  It’s pretty sick.

In other incest news, another central relationship in this novel is between Jon and his niece Kieran.  Jon has come home to help out his family because Kieran’s father Nick has abandoned her.  Jon and Kieran dance a strange pas de deux – the sort that can only emerge between a lovely teenage girl and her sexy, remote uncle.  See, Kieran is a rebellious teen – she dreads her hair, has a nose ring, and enjoys surfing the Internet.  Sutherland’s attempts to describe Kieran’s Interneting constitute the only enjoyable parts of this novel.  Kieran doesn’t email people, she sends messages to their electronic mailboxes. Whilst Interneting, Kieran makes a nefarious felon Internet gentlemen friend, the hilariously sketchy Hardball, who travels across the country to see her.  He squats in a hovel down by the ocean; quotes Thoreau, and tries to pressure her into smoking pot.  He seems pretty cool, but it is heavily implied that he plans to hook Kieran on the dope and get her into white slavery.  Clearly, Sutherland overestimates the Internet.

Don't overestimate the Internet!
Don't overestimate the Internet!

As you may have guessed, things inevitably resolve themselves.  Kieran transfers her infatuation from Hardball to Jon; Amy’s parents fall in love with her all over again, etc.  There’s also a really boring real-estate plot which finds its conclusion as well.  There’s very little hot sex, but there is a town hall meeting described in loving detail.

I hated Amy.  Do not read this book, except for the Internet parts.

Grade: D

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