Title: Off Course
Author: Michelle Huneven
Published: April 2014
Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books
Length: 287 pages
Relationship to Author: None
“She wasn’t making specific plans, but that hairline crack, she knew, could widen instantly to accommodate her, and day by day, its thin blackness grew less frightening, more logical and familiar, as if she could now walk right up, touch it with her fingertips, and, with a quick last smile over her shoulder at the fading world, slip right in. She was sorry. If she ever did, he’d mistake it for the meanest thing imaginable. But the natural outcome of abandonment was a failure to thrive, to survive.”
28-year-old Cressida “Cress” Hartley is nearly done with her economics PhD program; only that pesky “diss” remains in her way. To avoid distractions, Cress gets permission from her parents to use their weekend cabin as a writing sanctuary. The parents bought the house when Cress and her sister were girls, effectively keeping the children from friends and boys during the girls’ high school years and thus making them miserable. Cress’s father was raised during the depression, so he’s a rather stingy man and wants Cress out as soon as possible (especially since she can’t respect his wishes that she write down the temperature twice a day and keep the phone bill reasonable). The parents aren’t staying in the cabin because a new one is being constructed behind the old one. Having Cress there to keep an eye on things is a bonus.
Readers have to wonder how dedicated Cress is to her PhD program, as she spends all day hiking, drawing, painting, and keeping up with the local mountain men. First, it’s Jakey, the older man who resembles a grizzly bear. Jakey owns a lodge where people drink and congregate. He’s also known for his broken heart, the one he got when his wife decided to leave him on the day their youngest child graduated. As a salve, Jakey becomes a womanizer, but Cress is aware of the stakes. She enjoys his body heat and presence, but also knows that he’s going to quickly move on. Weirdly enough, everyone on the mountain seems excited about the possibility of Jakey and Cress getting married–they think he just needs to fuck his way into happiness to forget his wife–though it’s clear to the reader that it isn’t a desire of either person.
After Jakey, Cress meets Quinn, a married man with a daughter about to graduate high school and a younger son. When Cress and Quinn engage in sex, everyone is appalled; news travels fast, and here we have a genuine home wrecker! To understand the double standard of the mountain community, you have to know the individual’s histories. Most of the women in this community have been cheated on. These are the worst at slut shaming. They feel the need to have “words” with Cress (sparing Quinn, of course), and Cress loses friends who have been the victims of bad marriages made unbearable by a mistress. The female characters are suspicious and controlling of their boyfriends and husbands, but what can you expect when they’ve all been deceived, left with nothing, abandoned with children, forced to hold jobs as aging waitresses? Even the contractors working on Cress’s parents’ house, Julie and Rick Garsh, talk to Cress about her behavior despite the couple having met while Rick was married. Cress doesn’t let anyone bother her, nor is she unrealistic about what an affair can result in. She doesn’t expect Quinn to leave his wife, she doesn’t believe they’ll continue their romance forever (just gotta finish the dissertation!), and she can’t believe her heart will be broken. She handled Jakey just fine, didn’t she?
I really liked Huneven’s treatment of gender bias. She gives readers what’s real in a certain kind of place. Let’s face it, the mountain communities and cities of California are going to be different based just on culture, let alone money and education. In example, Quinn is in his 40s and struggling to get work. His wife, also in her 40s, is a waitress. Quinn started college, but never finished. He and his wife were high school sweethearts and married at 18, an uncommon practice in urban communities. Quinn doesn’t feel right about his wife working, but is attracted to Cress’s brains. He thinks she makes all of them a little bit less hillbilly. The gender bias isn’t only seen in the mountains, though; in her PhD program, Cress is the only woman and is shunned when she does better than her male peers. Because she is a woman in a male-dominated field, she is praised for her work (though Huneven makes sure we know she’s talented, too). We’re reminded that prejudice takes place everywhere.
Based on the title, readers might expect this novel would have more to do with school. For the first hundred or so pages, it’s barely a factor. Cress is jealous that her friends move on in their lives–“She could join them, once the damn diss was done”–but she is her worst saboteur. For a large chunk of the novel, I never considered Cress “off course.” It was more like she was living rent-free and looking for basic happiness. I can see how she’ll be unlikable to many readers, but there is an interesting connection to contemporary late-twenties and early-thirties readers: we understand Cress. The setting of Off Course is the Reagan-era recession, but how is that different from the 2010s? People study and work hard, and as the end of that schooling nears, reality becomes an abstract thing, a toothless monster that makes moving forward seem impossible and bends adulthood into an undesirable shape.
Cress’s decisions regarding Quinn may also become problematic for many; just how many times will this confident woman go back to a man who has told her she is the most important person in his entire life (this includes wife and kids), but leave her to go play family? Ask yourself honestly, though: has it ever been so easy as one time and then separate? Isn’t life one big messy pile of feelings and decisions that are made quickly, and, we hope, rationally? Huneven captures reality in her novel, which might be why it takes so long. We are led gradually to understand the characters. She doesn’t rush us.
The closer you get to the middle of the novel, the more you’ll notice mentions of how that particular moment will be remembered, or poorly remembered, in the future. Huneven starts giving us signs of how the end will be. These aren’t spoilers, but drops of ideas planted in our brains that make the ending reasonable. How many times have you read a long novel only to be angry with an unexpected ending? Because Off Course is so long (and the pages are densely packed), there is so much for each reader to take from this book. I only hope that people who don’t agree with the choices of the characters will have patience to try to understand them.