Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 109 in 2004.
Mary Morris' new novel Revenge reads something like an expanded version of one of the short stories Henry James wrote about a "master," a writer of peak creative power. Often in such works, James had the master play a cat-and-mouse game with the characters in the story (on stage, as it were), while off stage, James toyed with his own readers. In "The Figure in the Carpet," for example, friends of a dead artist search his novels in vain for a hidden message, which a mysterious message indicates is hidden in them, at the same time as the readers of James' story are prodded to embark on a similar search for the meaning of the tale.
Morris has modified this structure for our more low-brow literary culture. Instead of a literary master, the type James modeled on Turgenev, Morris gives us a literary celebrity whose writing, judging from the bathetic passage quoted and her Gothic plots, is a cross between Stephen King and Barbara Cartland. The plot, too, is less cerebral and, truthfully, more engaging than those of James. The heroine, Andrea Geller, who teaches at the same school as a literary star, has lost her remarried father under somewhat shady circumstances. She believes her stepmother is to blame, but others in the family call her suspicions groundless. Once she gets to know the celebrity, Loretta Partlow, Andrea conceives this plan. Since Partlow is notorious for picking people's brains for biographical anecdotes she can later incorporate in her novels, Andrea will tell her the story of her father's death, leaving in all her misgivings. Then, when, hopefully, the same story appears in the next Partlow best seller, the stepmother will read it – everybody reads Partlow's latest – and like Hamlet's stepfather when he sees the play within the play, be driven to reveal her conniving in her husband's demise.
This is hardly the whole plot, which has as many hairpin twists as a Coney Island coaster, but does give an idea of the ingenuity of Morris' storyline. Of course, it may seem a tad implausible, but the story's unfolding is not used so much to build suspense, although plenty of that is generated, as to reveal the nature of Andrea's obsessive personality, whose character knots most of the book sets about to untie.
The novel then combines a bracing plot and a finely nuanced character study, which, on the way, presents a satirical portrayal of life in a backwoods, but high-profile liberal arts college, where academic stars are courted and feted while the part- time adjunct teachers, such as Andrea, are exploited then ditched. And, as in James, just as Andrea and the master play games with Andrea's narrative of her father's passing, which Andrea reveals in hints and flashes so as to catch Partlow's imagination and spark her creative juices; so Morris' readers are tweaked by the unexpected pasts of Partlow and Geller, which also emerge slowly into a stark and surprising light.