RIGHT THIS WAY
by Miriam N. Kotzin
Spuyten Duyvil, 339 pages
reviewed by Lynn Levin
They say it can be done, but it is hard, very hard, for most betrayed wives to regain trust and forge ahead in a marriage with a husband who has cheated. This may hold true even if the man has ended the affair, even if he feels remorse, even if he is not a repeat offender, even if he tries to repair the marital bond. Warranted or not, suspicion, like a persistent shadow, may stalk a woman’s thoughts. She may not be able to rid herself of the notion that somewhere out there the enticing forbidden fruit still dangles or ripens anew.
The concept of transgression without redemption goes all the way back to the myth of Adam and Eve. Miriam N. Kotzin, in this wise and heart-wrenching new novel, reimagines the foundational Genesis text and adapts it to our times. The author situates the action in early twenty-first-century Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a comfortable middle-class town in which people have steady jobs, play tennis, eat healthy, go for manicures, have social lives with friends, care very much about their homes, and where, sorry to say—at least in this Cherry Hill—everybody knows everybody else’s business.
Kotzin is both a poet and a fiction writer, and this is her second novel. The author has a profound sense of the moral and philosophical. She also has a flair for describing the detail of daily lives. Her characters are educated and thoughtful people, and Kotzin depicts their struggles, even those of the antagonistic characters, with sympathy and understanding. The protagonist of the novel, from whose perspective the story is told, is Ely Cutter, a Jewish, middle-aged, moderately successful seller of residential real estate, who having wounded his wife Lynne by his affair with Eleanor, a woman from the community, is doing his level best to hold onto his marriage. Ely, whose name means my God in Hebrew, has also taken a spiritual turn, reciting the blessings over all manner of things, from vegetables to water.
One day while tending to tomatoes and pole beans in his backyard, Ely looks up and sees a face in the sky. The face looks curiously like a garden ornament of the sun. But is this a figment of his imagination, a true spiritual presence, perhaps even the watchful countenance of the Lord? Does it matter if the sight is real or imaginary? It is real enough to Ely. Wrapped up in his guilt and fear, Ely takes this as some sort of admonition and sign from above. Amazed and confused, Ely tells his wife Lynne of the vision. Lynne coldly advises him not to tell a soul, then promptly gabs about her husband’s vision at the beauty salon. Soon it seems that everyone in their social circle knows that Ely Cutter has seen a face in the sky that looks like a garden ornament of the sun. Is nothing sacred? Is nothing confidential? Not only does the whole town know of Ely’s garden vision, it also turns out that everyone knows of Ely’s prior affair with Eleanor. Betrayals and betrayals of confidence abound in pleasant Cherry Hill.
Throughout the novel, Ely and Lynne keep trying to talk through the rift in their lives. Husband Ely tries to be affectionate and helpful around the house, yet quarrels persist. Something as small as Lynne’s gripe with Ely’s desire to use the wild green purslane in a salad will start a cranky back and forth. Lynne can’t help throwing Ely’s guilty conscience in his face, but even through the most disruptive times, Ely observes, “Who would want to be on the wrong side of 50 and looking at a life alone? He and Lynne have had their rocky moments, to be sure, but their worst of times together is better than the life he’d have without her.” The care and sympathy with which Kotzin allows Ely to examine his own feelings is most impressive.
Ely’s relationship with former lover Eleanor has been downgraded to a talking friendship, but she’s still actively reaching out to him. Just as it seems that the man’s extramarital love life is under control, in slithers seductive Grace Cooper. Beautiful, wealthy, often braless, a yoga aficionado with a thirst for vodka, Grace is going through a divorce and is actively house hunting. She is a client of Ely’s. Plenty of chances for the two to canoodle in the properties that Ely shows her. As he squires Grace from house to house, she tries repeatedly to seduce him or at least to indulge in suggestive talk.
After a pleasing discussion of her interest in a butter-yellow kitchen at one property, Grace’s conversation with Ely takes a vaguely naughty turn and the sexual tension rises.
“I don’t want to look at split levels,” Grace said. “And cathedral ceilings make me nervous. Picture windows facing the street…I could never see the point. You have to cover them up with curtains, or you’re the picture.”
“OK,” Cutter said. “We’ll keep that in mind.” Grace knows what she doesn’t want, he thought, and what she does. “This next house has a yellow kitchen, but not the yellow you want.”
“I’m not expecting to find a perfect house,” she said.
“Yoga,” Grace said, laughing.
“But no cathedral ceilings,” Cutter said, picturing Grace in a leotard or less, which, he assumed was her point.
Grace also has a knack for creating compromising situations, and her moods swing from flirtatious to snippy to weepy. And still Ely resists the temptation to go to bed with Grace, refusing her as politely as possible at every turn. An expert at close interior monologue, Kotzin reveals Ely’s thoughts: “He wasn’t sure what had kept him from touching Grace: loving Lynne, a shred of conscience, or a fear of discovery.” Poor hapless Ely, caught between old flame Eleanor, seductive client Grace, and mistrustful wife Lynne. Like the three Fates of Greek myth, the women seem to manipulate Ely’s life, regardless of his will and his agency.
Right This Way is a moral and philosophical novel. It is a story of trying to be good and aiming for redemption. It is also a tale of bad influences and entrapments and a reflection on causality. Kotzin’s characters find themselves embarrassed, tempted, and entrapped by surprising meetups that may be sheer coincidence, crashes on the slippery roads of chaos; they might be due the machinations of others in their lives; they might even be determined by a higher power. This philosophical conundrum, which may be beyond answering, is debated in the novel. But it is Kotzin the novelist, playing the role of the Fates, who draws the action to its final shocking unpredictable conclusion that leaves Ely in the midst of both relief and grief.
Read this gripping novel. Contend with its nuanced moral and philosophical questions.
Lynn Levin is a poet, writer, and teacher. Her most recent book is the poetry collection The Minor Virtues (Ragged Sky). Her website is lynnlevinpoet.com.