(Colombus, OH: Two Dollar Radio, 2021)
I have read the book to beat this year.
Melanie Finn’s latest novel, The Hare, follows Rosie Monroe, an art school student living on her own in New York City in the 1980s, as she navigates her relationship with Bennett Kinney, a man twenty years her senior. Bennett is a scam artist and that special type of New England frou-frou snob – the sort that feels empowered while bossing around service staff and cultured while getting sloppily hammered with Truman Capote – but young Rosie doesn’t quite get the picture that he’s a busted mess and, soon enough, has dropped out of Parsons to live with him on a boathouse on Connecticut’s Gold Coast.
It comes as no surprise when Rosie discovers she is pregnant. Like many twenty-somethings, she had not been especially careful about tracking her periods and “there had been a couple of times when she’d gone to remove the diaphragm and found it already dislodged. And a few instances when she hadn’t replenished the spermicidal jelly between love-making.” The newness of her relationship with Bennett and the discovery of sexual desire pushed all that to background noise:
He desired her and it was grown up to be able to fuck at will, she felt sometimes unsure but Bennett did things with his hands and his mouth and he wanted her to come, and she let herself roll on the waves of her orgasms while he watched and admired. Somewhere inside, Rosie had the idea, like a stone buried deep in the Presbyterian loam of her soul, this pregnancy was punishment for being greedy.
The Hare is pitched as a brave consideration “of a woman’s inherent sense of obligation – sexual and emotional – to the male hierarchy,” a theme that first begins to surface precisely as young Rosie equates sexual gratification with a punishable offense. Bennett’s desire for sex is not part of the equation as she considers who is to blame – who is deserving of punishment – for the unintended pregnancy.
Bennett is not part of the equation at all, in fact, as Rosie navigates the early weeks of her pregnancy. He does not give much notice to her nausea and changing body, so consumed is he with the intricacies of pawning memorabilia he (most likely) has stolen from his WASP-y neighbors – and Rosie doesn’t make an effort to reveal her pregnancy to him, in any case. Instead, she accepts money for an abortion from Bennett’s benefactor, Hobie, and takes a seat with a dozen other women behind bullet-proof glass and bullet-proof steel doors at the clinic. It is not giving too much away to reveal that Rosie does not have the abortion and gives Hobie’s money away to a woman struggling with an aggravating child in the clinic parking lot; nor is it giving too much away to say that Bennett plays no role in Rosie’s day-long walk back to The Boathouse:
Fairfield Avenue melded with the Post Road, and Rosie paused in the shade of a hardware store. Her foot throbbed, her head throbbed. She might have a miscarriage from the walk and the heat and what that would be like, warm, lumpy blood and relief that the decision had been made for her. For a few minutes, she watched customers coming in and out of the store, mostly men in work clothes. They did not seem to notice her, intent on pine cabinets and plumbing. They had pencils behind their ears. Their sense of purpose amplified her lack of it, and she felt again her vagueness and transparency.
Although Finn is not overtly political until the latter half of the book, Rosie’s feeling of amplified vagueness and transparency is relevant to The Hare’s dialogue with the #MeToo movement as well as the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearing (which is referred to explicitly in the latter half of the book). Given the number and magnitude of crimes committed by the Republican party by the time of my writing, I want to remind readers that Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite allegations that he had assaulted Christine Blasey Ford when she was fifteen years old. Blasey-Ford’s experience, while reported in news outlets, is a case-in-point example of women’s transparency… and invisibility.
(Of course, by January 2021, it’s become clear that there is a growing faction of women who are equally disinterested in women’s voices. Amy Coney Barrett – a conservative wing-nut on the wrong side of every argument from abortion to “gun rights” – took her seat on the Supreme Court in October. Although Coney Barrett was not likely on Finn’s mind as she wrote The Hare – she has no crystal ball, after all – there are echoes of her in Rosie’s grandmother. Stern and unemotional, Rosie’s grandmother took little active interest in raising her granddaughter after her parents died, resulting in an inappropriate and possibly abusive relationship between Rosie and one of her grandmother’s long-term tenants.)
Bennett’s current con-job falls apart not too long after Rosie gives birth to their daughter, Miranda, and they flee The Boathouse in the middle of the night. (I was surprised Bennett bothered to take Rosie and Miranda with him and, as the scene unfolds, there is some murkiness as to whether he was planning to abscond without them.) They settle in northern Vermont, in a cabin with no heat or proper insulation, Rosie and Miranda still in their summer clothes. Soon, Bennett abandons them in the cabin without a car or cash for weeks at a time, claiming that the college offered him a room during the week so he would not have to risk the drive – such a load of horse shit, even naïve Rosie doesn’t fall for it. He returns on weekends, if he feels like it, paying for groceries and bitching (poor baby) that there is no Broccolini at the supermarket.
Bennett complained that the house was too cold, she could never get it warm enough. He always fucked her from behind now. She wanted tenderness, she wanted love like rain in the desert, she wanted Gran to kiss her goodnight and tuck her into bed, she wanted her mother and father and time to rewind, undo, do over. But she had, instead, this threadbare lust. […] Then on Sunday afternoon he would leave and she’d wonder at the stopped-clock silence and the way time would begin again […] Then relief, like a scullery maid off duty at last in the large house of a rich man, alone with her soft hours.
It is at this point that Rosie begins her transformation. Forced to care for Miranda alone, she seeks help from her neighbor, Billy, dressing herself and her child in blankets, tying plastic bags over her sneakers to protect from the winter wetness, and carrying Miranda in a home-made baby back-pack made from a garbage bag. It’s worth noting, too, that Rosie’s mittens are fashioned from Bennett’s wool socks, which appear to be brand new. With Billy’s help, Rosie learns her first lessons in resilience and self-sufficiency: she heats the house using a temperamental wood stove, hunts, butchers, and cooks wild game, and forages in the freezing forest. It is Billy, too, who opens Rosie’s eyes for the first time to who and what Bennett really is:
Billy, for her part, threw one last look at Bennett, still slumbering. It was an inscrutable regard, yet, as if by a visual trick, Rosie briefly saw Bennett as Billy must. Hadn’t his hair been thick and lustrous? In reality, it ebbed back from his forehead. The skin on his face collapsed against his arm, his mouth partly open to emit a snore. For too long they both stood watching Bennett sleep.
“Shhhiiit,” Billy hissed. “Titsonna bull.”
Billy, I should mention, is a woman – and this is no accident of plot. It is deeply relevant to our time and age that Rosie, a victim of male hierarchies, should find her footing with the help of another resilient woman. Male hierarchies are overrated and bogus: During this past year of global pandemic, our now-former president Trump sat on his duff, contemplating drinking bleach (please, go for it!) while women-led nations that have successfully mitigated the damage of the pandemic are barely discussed.
While The Hare aligns itself more directly with the Kavanaugh hearing, I felt a more explicit connection between Rosie and Billy and the handling (so-called) of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Consider the New York Times article from May 2020, entitled “Why Are Women-Led Nations Doing Better With Covid-19.” It notes that Jacinda Arden, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, successfully implemented a lockdown beginning March 25, contained spread of the virus, and re-opened the country two months later. Angela Merkel’s Germany experienced a lower death rate than Britain, France, Italy, or Spain. In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen contained the virus “using testing, contact tracing and isolation measures to control infections without a full national lockdown.”
While the New York Times was reluctant to draw conclusions based on gender, I’m not: the consistent theme is that women leaders are more likely than males to include people of diverse backgrounds and diverse perspectives to combat crises. “By contrast, the male led governments […] appear to have relied primarily on epidemiological modeling by their own advisors, with few channels for dissent from outside experts.” Rosie reminds me of Arden, Merkel, Ing-wen, and other female-identifying leaders precisely because she seeks help from Billy – a woman who, on first impression, seemed more animal that human – despite the discomfiture she feels stepping outside her comfort zone.
Rosie and Billy exemplify the symbiosis of learning from others’ diverse experiences. Bennett – and men like him – are incapable of learning anything. It is fitting, then, that he does not escape the legal ramifications of his schemes. Thank God Rosie, finally and perhaps after too many years, puts him precisely where he belongs. (Am I clear enough that I despise Bennett? He is a perfectly drawn character, effortlessly vile and yet still somehow charming…Exactly the type of clown women of a certain type seem most drawn to in their early twenties.) It is sadly reflective, too, of these types of relationships that Billy suffers for all she has done to help Rosie and Miranda. No good deed goes unpunished, I suppose – especially if you are a woman.
All this said, I do not want to misconstrue The Hare as a political book or imply that the book’s merits lie in its many congruencies with the political and social climate of our times. It can be political, and it does reflect repugnant political and social times much too well – but The Hare should be read because it is a damn good book. The plot is riveting, with unexpected twists and a climax that is not to be missed, and the characters are so skillfully drawn: relatable, loveable, hateable and totally unforgettable. Finn has created a perfect and original novel – however you want to characterize it – that belongs on any serious reader’s shelf.
| | |
Lisa Grgas is the Supervising Editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Tin House Magazine, Adroit Journal, Ki’n, Common Ground, Luna Luna, Black Telephone, and elsewhere. She lives in Hoboken, NJ.