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By Bruce Jacobs

“Three Stages of Amazement”
By Carol Edgarian
Scribner ($25.00, 296 pp.)

We’ve all been to San Francisco at least once, or seen it in the movies. You know the scenery – the Bridge, the Bay, the Hills, the Rock, the Haight, Chinatown, Tim Lincecum…and all that money.

Who can afford to live there? In her second novel Carol Edgarian takes us into the city­­––that “fine lady in linen and heels”––on the eve of Obama’s reign and at the bottom of our “great recession.” She lays open the lives of two marriages: one of longevity and great wealth perched in a mansion on the hill overlooking it all, another in its difficult middle years of more modest wealth in a pink overpriced bungalow in the shadows below.

A Troubled Marriage

The marriage of surgeon Charlie Pepper and Lena Rusch is in trouble. A former activist and advocate for the disadvantaged and the arts, Lena now has her hands full just trying to raise their precocious son and the surviving, damaged twin daughter of a premature delivery that went bad.

Charlie has abandoned a stable medical career to launch a start-up company to make surgical robots. But he missed the “glory days of the nineties…cash, no contingency” and now the money is gone and venture capitalists won’t touch him.

Without a quick infusion of several million, his company is finished. Lena resents his travel to shake the money trees leaving her with constant hospital trips, never knowing if little sickly Willa will survive or not. As their marriage unravels, in walks Lena’s very, very rich estranged uncle Cal to offer Charlie the angel money he needs to save the company.

Angel Investor?

Cal was a pioneer in the dot.com frenzy and made his zillions as much by knowing which flaky entrepreneur to back as by knowing when to sell out…which he perspicaciously did before it all imploded. His wife Ivy put up with his bullheaded ways because…well, because she had all the money she ever needed and she got a kick out of his often crude ways.  Because of Cal’s long ago rift with her father, Lena has sworn to never see him and Ivy again, and she has forbidden Charlie to take his money. But what’s poor Charlie to do? He needs it. He has maxed out his credit cards, his daughter’s medical bills sit unpaid, he has criss-crossed the country so many times his son thinks he doesn’t live at home…and Lena is always quick and loud in reminding him how things are not the way she expected when they walked all gooey-eyed into their marriage.

“He took a quick drink just to busy his hands.

‘Why did you marry me?’

…’Because you were good, smart. Steady. Loving. Kind.’

…Charlie held up his hands.

‘You make it sound like you were choosing…an old Volvo.’”

A Party To Remember

In the middle of the country’s economic meltdown, in the middle of these marital woes, in the middle of “Three Stages of Amazement” comes the party to end all parties. For more than a year, Ivy has planned their daughter’s engagement party: “The cost of the night would exceed a million dollars. Seven hundred and two guests.”

Like a modern day Tolstoy, Edgarian spends fifty pages chronicling every hors d’ oeuvre, every drink, every Brioni suit, every tipsy, flirty conversation, and every one of the “handpicked army: chefs from Chez Panisse, Roses Café and Jardiniére…with their support teams and a hundred waitstaff.” The guests include a string of movie stars, politicians (why would anyone invite Al and Tipper Gore and the Pelosi’s to a party?), Cal’s many partners and investors…and, in an effort to mend fences, Charlie and Lena.

When the party’s all over, Cal compliments her on the success of her big event with only a terse: “good job.” Ivy takes no guff:

“That was that. A year of preparation came down to a ‘good job.’ For that matter, almost fifty years cohabiting with this man came down to a ‘good job’…What was marriage anyway, but a daily exchange of preferences and habits – of beef not salmon; coral not pink; Democrats not the other guys; a series of negotiations, and lines shot across rooms, and the mad dash to get out of the house on time: ‘The Brendels are coming, not the Druckers; the car’s in the shop; your breath is heavy. Larry Goldman is a fool. Do you love me? I said I did, and I do, damn it.’”

A Litany of Questions

The past sneaks into the story at the party when Lena runs into her Italian first love Alessandro who is now a part of Cal’s investor team and is hell bent on re-seducing her while her troubles with Charlie make her ripe for seduction. Charlie’s hopes for Cal’s money dry up when Cal’s doctor accidentally observes a terminal melanoma on his face while visiting the house to tend to Ivy’s sudden stroke.  With Charlie’s benefactors and Lena’s aunt and uncle on their death beds, we watch Cal and Ivy’s long marriage limp to an undignified end of private nurses and merciless surgeries.

You can guess where Edgarian is going to take the younger couple: with no money for his business and a new lover in her bed, Lena and Charlie have to split before they can forgive each other, reunite, and discover what really holds them together. More family secrets are revealed. Their son learns love and responsibility when he inherits Ivy’s two protective, third generation Great Danes. After the splendid party scene, all this plot melodrama is something of a let down.

With her keen eye for the details of both the trappings of marriage and its very real, but straining, bonds, Edgarian shines a bright light on where this age old custom sits today…especially in the “gorgeous sugar-cake” monied world of San Francisco. Her plot may get a little hokey and contrived as she works toward some kind of resolution, but her language and characters make “Three Stages of Amazement” well worth these mild stumbles.


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