The Permanent Press 2012
Reviewed by Bob Wake
Joan Frank’s Make it Stay is a brief novel, but it skimps on nothing under the sun, particularly the lush sun of Northern California where the story is set. This tale of aging Boomer marital discord is so thoroughly embedded within the sensuality of the natural world that it seems sprouted rather than written. In Frank’s lovingly rendered vineyard town of Mira Flores (“the fresh sharp smell of pines in the warm sun, the drifty morning fog, heavy sweetness of roses spilling over fences in Popsicle colors, faint salt scents of ocean”), impulsiveness and passion are as intuitive as the Pacific Coast tides forty miles away.
Impulses, like stories, are renewable resources that can turn destructive if we refuse their lessons. It seems appropriate that Rachel, the narrator of Make it Stay, is a writer. Whether or not this better equips her to deal with the serial adultery of her husband’s best friend is not so easily answered. “Why must this be the story, over and over and over,” she laments in italicized dismay. Rachel, we discover (somewhat to our discomfort as readers), is not so much an unreliable narrator as a recognizably flawed one overcome by self-doubt and jealousy. “Lord,” she confesses to us after making one of several breathtakingly cruel observations about others, “what an unkind thought.”
The first half of Make it Stay is a stylistic tour-de-force with chapters alternating between dinner-party preparations overseen by Rachel’s husband, Neil, a Scottish-born legal aid attorney and amateur gourmand, and the backstory of Neil’s friendship with the adulterous Mike and his alcoholic wife, Tilda, both due for dinner that evening. In Joan Frank’s energetic telling, this set-up becomes a page-turning psychedelic Wayback Machine as we’re transported to Mira Flores in the 1970s: Mike, a marine biology dropout, owns an aquarium shop in town called Finny Business; Neil, waiting to pass the California bar, interns two blocks away at the Legal Aid office. There are diving excursions to the Polynesian Islands in search of rare tropical fish for Mike’s shop. A near-drowning bonds their friendship for life.
The novel takes a decidedly darker turn in its second half. Joan Frank refuses to judge her characters even when her characters are quick to judge one another. Rachel’s wisdom, by novel’s end, is real and hard-won, but it is also world-weary and not necessarily built to last. Like the marriages splayed and dissected with such scalding precision in Make it Stay. Readers whose sympathies fall in one direction early on, may be surprised to find their hardened hearts reversing course as Frank skillfully and tough-mindedly overturns our expectations and rattles our complacency. Rachel’s writerly indignation is as up-to-date and CNN-ready as it is timeless and universal:
Crazy shit—and I don’t mean pissy little Jamesian drawing-room slights, but atrocity—bombards folks with no warning every day; decent, forthright, shoelace-tying folks. If they have shoelaces. Look at Neil’s clients; look at the news. Anything that’s functional, that’s actually been good for us? Passable health, freedom from pain? Something to eat, clean water? Nobody pull a weapon today?
When the phrase “make it stay” is finally spoken—haltingly, painfully—by one of the characters, it is a cri de coeur not of nostalgic longing but of something deeper, an animating force submerged and mysterious, seldom glimpsed, as elusive as the rarest tropical fish, but most assuredly captured in the pages of Joan Frank’s memorable novel.
Bob Wake is editor of Cambridge Book Review and author of Caffeine and Other Stories.