This is my second read from Cross-Smith. A few years ago I read, and unexpectedly really loved, Whiskey & Ribbons. It was an end of the year book for me then too and was a last minute addition to my “favorites of the year” 2018 list. Since then, I’ve meant to read the short story collection she’s published, but I am not always in the mood for short stories, so I haven’t gotten to it yet. However, when I saw that she had another novel coming out, this one, I was psyched and knew I’d be reading it sooner rather than later.
Driving home from work one evening, Tallie (a therapist), sees and stops Emmett from taking an action that would end his life. Over the course of the weekend that follows, Tallie and Emmett spend days together, sharing lots of “big talk” and inevitably becoming deeply tangled in each other’s lives, yet purposefully holding each other at arm’s length because they are, essentially, strangers. Emmett meets Tallie’s family and leaves a lasting mark on them, while simultaneously enacting a ruse that will break her budding trust in him. Tallie does everything she can to help Emmett see that his life has meaning, is worth living, while hiding an essential fact about herself that will threaten his belief in her motives. And in back-and-forth-in-time perspectives, the reader is also given the unfolding events that led to Emmett’s decision to end his life and the difficult realities Tallie has yet to fully reckon with in her own life.
Although this novel was so different, in so many ways, from Whiskey & Ribbons, there was a style and feeling to the writing that rang very similar. It seems that the sort of soft, gentle cadence to the words and the way the story unfolds, is a central characteristic of Cross-Smith’s writing. Interestingly, although the art forms were differently used and experienced, the place that art itself holds in the lives of the characters and the emotional connections shared/created is another similarity between the two. Something about the way it’s woven in just adds to the smooth, comforting flow of the writing; it sort of all just washes over you as a reader, bringing you along for an immersive ride. And despite the intensity of many of the events that occur within these pages, it was still a deeply soothing reading experience. A really impressive accomplishment and, as it’s the second time, really proves that it’s no fluke, that Cross-Smith is just that good.
There is one other literary detail worth mentioning, an internal stylistic device. Emmett’s observations, or cataloging, of the details around him, as well as Tallie’s mental therapy notes, are both really nice touches that gives something extra to the characters and, while it could easily be overdone, never felt that way for me. They give an almost haunting quality to Emmett and Tallie’s inner personhood throughout their time together and it adds something simple, but necessary, to their development.
Regarding the actual story, it was, as I said, quite intense. It really shouldn’t be a surprise, considering the way Emmett and Tallie meet, but it ends up being so much more than that. Despite the lies (or truth-guarding, if you will) that they tell each other, the intentional miscommunications and mis-directions and invasions of privacy (that self-protective aspect in itself was such a human part of the story, I couldn’t get over the absolute real feeling of it), there is something impossibly tender in the way Emmett and Tallie are with each other. It is deeply affecting and had me emotionally invested in them together almost immediately. And while there is definitely a romantic tension to their character development in and around each other, that’s too surface-level to appropriately describe it. So when there was follow through there, but then also not, that weird mix of completeness and dissatisfaction was exactly what fit, and what I wanted from it.
Other than that, looking at the “side character” details, the integration of Tallie’s extended family and ex-husband, as well as her yearning for a child, juxtaposed with Emmett’s mysteriously absent family and, of course, the mystery of the “why” behind his suicide attempt, into this emotion-laden long weekend, were equally striking as facets of the Emmet and Tallie’s story. (A note here, the suicide attempt, planning, ideation, bargaining/planning, is central to the novel and has a quiet intensity to it that hits all the harder because of it, deserving full-throated content warnings.)
It’s the small things, the artistic touches, that make Cross-Smith’s writing so good. I was just so softly blown away by this novel. The tender writing and story of Emmett and Tallie, ships passing in the night while leaving indelible marks on each other’s lives/futures, was so emotionally raw and epicly poignant.
“Losing her nervousness made her feel reckless, and feeling reckless fed her recklessness, leading her to feel the scariest, most thrilling thing of all: free.”
“He could pretend to be someone else who was pretending to be someone else. The cracked husk of his heart inside another and another, ad infinitum. Evidence of how he’d closed himself off out of necessity. Grief. Guilt. And fear.”