Pickle’s Progress was published in April 2019. I received an ARC from NetGalley, but as always, all thoughts are my own.
My review contains spoilers from the very beginning of the book, but I do not give away major events from the rest of the story.
Content Warnings: Suicide, childhood abuse and sexual assault, alcohol addiction, adultery
Marcia Butler’s debut novel, Pickle’s Progress, is a fierce, mordant New York story about the twisted path to love.
Over the course of five weeks, identical twin brothers, one wife, a dog, and a bereaved young woman collide against each other to hilarious and sometimes horrifying effect. Everything is questioned and tested as they jockey for position and try to maintain the status quo. Love is the poison, the antidote, the devil and, ultimately, the hero.
This debut novel is written in a way that places the reader in a hovering position above the characters and action. Marcia Butler has told such an interesting story with surprises and rawness at every turn, that it was a bit disappointing to feel so deflated by the ending.
First, though, let’s talk about the setting. New York City and its structures – both natural and human-made – are relatively prominent in the story. From the George Washington Bridge to varying forms of apartments and office buildings, as well as the Hudson River and park benches, Marcia Butler makes us quite aware of our geographic location. I wouldn’t call the geographic and architectural details unnecessarily excessive, instead they feel intentional; in fact, the plot(s) is quite dependent on the descriptions and details of those objects, places, and buildings. This gives the novel an extra layer of sensory quality.
One of the reasons why those details feel more appropriately intentional rather than excessive is the occupations and situations of our four main characters. Karen McArdle is an interior designer and her husband, Stan McArdle, is an architect. In fact, they own and run a highly successful and exclusive design firm. Peter (Pickle) McArdle is Stan’s twin brother, and is a New York City police officer. When Karen and Stan purchased the brownstone in which they live, Pickle was supposed to move into the top floor but was left out – the main plot of the book is the drama over this situation. Just like NYC is identifiable by its structures, the identities of these characters are very much tethered to their occupations and social status.
Junie is a woman who comes into their lives at the very beginning of the book. Stan is [drunk] driving himself and Karen home, and on the George Washington Bridge they get in an accident after Stan swerves the car to avoid hitting someone in the road. That someone is Junie, who had just watched her boyfriend jump from the Bridge. Karen decides to look after the young woman, thus Junie moves into the bottom floor of the brownstone. From there, the story and characters’ histories unravel. Karen – a dedicated, hardworking woman in her professional life, is struggling with demons of her past and certain choices she’s made to get where she is in the present. Stan exhibits signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and relies on Karen way more than he cares to admit. In childhood, Pickle had always been thought of after Stan, and his discontent with his current situation isn’t spiteful, but he has held on to negative feelings about their mother. And Junie is dealing with both the unimaginable loss of her boyfriend, which has ultimately thrown her into a severe identity crisis.
There are enough conflicts in this book (plot-wise and between characters) to make your head spin, but Marcia Butler keeps the story in line and not as dizzying with her exquisite prose. Her writing is straightforward enough to be clear, but beautiful enough for it to be savored.
As lovely as the writing is, and as deep and real the story is, the ending is missing a level of satisfaction that was expected. Did I think there was going to be a happy, hopeful ending? No. But it is missing…something. Something messier? Something a little more tidy? The emptiness that came with that last page is strange, and yet I can’t seem to describe it as more than that: emptiness, but a deflated emptiness that has me shrugging at the characters’ fates rather than gasping or speculating.
Overall, this novel is an experience I’d gladly revisit. And I’m looking forward to reading more from Marcia Butler.
Have you read Pickle’s Progress? Or have a question or thought about anything I’ve written? Let’s chat in the comments!