by Laura Kasischke
Published by Harcourt
320 pages, 2007
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
Laura Kasischke's Be Mine is, hands-down, one of the most frustrating books I can remember reading. Rarely do you find a real page turner that builds and builds and builds -- signaling the work of a powerful writer -- and then see it completely fall apart into a real mess. But that, I am sad to report, is precisely what happens here.
Be Mine is the tale of Sherry Seymour, high school teacher, wife, mother. On Valentine's Day, she receives an anonymous note in her school mailbox which reads "be mine." This simple note sets the story in motion. Who is the note from? A student? Another teacher? The idea of such a thing titillates Sherry to no end, and although she has a life that she seems reasonably happy with, she can't stop thinking about what it would be like to know who her admirer is, and even to pursue a relationship with him.
If that weren't strange enough, her husband, whom she tells about the note -- as well as the many that follow, each more suggestive than the last -- seems to want her to find out who it is, and actually have the affair.
Eventually, she does just that. Sherry isolates someone and jumps headlong into jumping his bones as often as she can, sinking herself into an affair that's described with such sexually abandoned language you'll wonder whether the book should feature a plain brown jacket. What's shocking isn't the language itself (hey, we're all grown-ups here), but that Sherry -- an English teacher -- uses such four-letter precision to describe what she and her paramour do between the sheets. And in the shower. And on the floor of her small pied à terre near the school. And more.
I thought the affair itself was pretty fun. To see Sherry, a normally reserved woman -- who might have worn, say, Laura Ashley dresses in college -- behaving like a crush-drunk schoolgirl who finally has the attention of the school hunk, is great. How she juggles both personae is fun to watch. You know it's wrong as can be, but you feel, somehow, that she deserves this off-the-grid good time. You root for her, even though you know, as a reader, that it's hopeless.
And soon enough, that hopelessness peeks out from its hiding place and what started out as a merely interesting read becomes a truly compelling one. Turns out the guy Sherry's banging isn't the writer of the notes, after all. Still, she continues the affair. Frankly, she's having too much fun. But who's writing the notes?
Meanwhile, Sherry's husband is getting off on the affair. Yeah, she told him about it, right at the start. He likes it. He fantasizes about it, and even asks Sherry to bring him to their home and screw him in their bed while he tape records the event for posterity. Though Sherry is furious at the thought, she's also turned on by it.
But this slippery slope gets really greased, until Sherry loses all control, if she ever had any, to begin with. She learns who wrote the notes. She learns that her husband thought she was pretending to have an affair, not actually having one. She learns that her paramour has lied about his life, somewhat, so can she trust him? And she learns that her son, who's come home for the summer, isn't quite the little boy she wishes he still was.
Clearly, I don't want to give anything away here. Even though Be Mine completely falls to pieces, ending with a jarring suddenness and a sharply disappointing predictability, you might find the premise intriguing, as I did. So I suppose I'm hiding the names to protect you, the innocent reader.
I couldn't wait to read Be Mine, but in the end its manipulations, while fascinating to watch, don't resolve themselves; not properly, and worse, not believably. Fiction, while by design a lie, shouldn't feel like one, but Be Mine does. It feels as if a horrible joke has been played on you, stimulated simply by your turning the pages. The author-reader trust isn't just broken; it's shattered. The author's language and attention to telling detail, which convey real talent, even flair, is betrayed by a third-act climax that feels forced, mean, and wrong. I was willing to believe every outrageous thing these characters did to themselves and to one another for 200 pages, but what they do at the end ruins all that came before. | February 2007
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse and a contributing editor to January Magazine and Blue Coupe. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where he is hard at work on an exciting new chapter in his life.