If you look up Laura Rider’s Masterpiece by Jane Hamilton on Google, you’ll see it’s described as “domestic fiction.” I’ve read loads of domestic fiction and used to teach a literature course on disturbing domestic fiction. No, better to describe Hamilton’s short novel as satire. The characters stretch beyond plausible people, though at their core they are weirdos with dreams and drive.
Laura Rider has been married to Charlie Rider for years. Together, they own a plant nursery in Wisconsin, though Laura is the one who sees to business development, leads classes, speaks at events, and organizes the whole place. Charlie does what he’s told . . . unless he doesn’t, sneaking a bit of himself into the design of the nursery. Charlie may seem unmotivated based on my description, but Jane Hamilton has written a character with a child-like simplicity, eating Fruit Loops and chicken nuggets and making up stories about what the pet cats did all day, but a very adult sex drive. And Laura has just decided she can’t take his enthusiastic sex pounding anymore. You think I’m being vulgar, surely.
Suddenly, Laura decides she’s tired of the nursery and dreams of writing a novel. Despite admitting she doesn’t read or write or know any history of women’s writing or romance — she’s only seen the “classic” Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice, never read Austen — Laura seeks out a library book about how to craft a love story and uses a bit of unconventional inspiration.
Jenna Faroli is an NPR-like radio personality in Wisconsin. She’s a serious, put-together woman married to a Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge who feels they no longer need a sexual life. Laura listens to Jenna’s show without fail, exclaiming Jenna is her icon of intelligence and sophistication. But after Charlie meets Jenna on the side of the road, telling her those weird shapes in the sky are aliens, something in Jenna wants to let go, to have a passionate, sexual relationship with a non-serious man, to believe in the unbelievable — like aliens. She begins having an affair with Charlie, one that Laura gleefully orchestrates for the sake of her romance manuscript.
Everything about Laura Rider’s Masterpiece is over the top. Laura doesn’t just feel Jenna is an icon, it’s more like modern-day fangirling. Jenna, who blossoms sexually in the novel, isn’t described as sexy — more a cardboard box — but Charlie’s eyes mist up like a cartoon character at his lovey feelings for her. Charlie is reduced to the mediocre white man trope, a guy who gets good things despite not trying, not doing, not accomplishing. He even used a baby bottle until he was seven.
But as Charlie and Jenna send e-mails to each other about their sexual delights and love affair, Laura reads the correspondence — Charlie’s password is his dead dog’s name — even occasionally e-mailing Jenna back on Charlie’s behalf in order to play out their story for her work in progress. Hamilton strips back the “filter,” if I may draw attention to how gorgeous people look in media, reminding readers of the way we’re clumsy with love and sex because we’re human:
The way Jenna wrote about her pleasure, you would have thought that no one had ever touched her down there, that she’d lived her life in a convent. You would have thought that she’d only just realized, at age forty-six, why people had been making art about sex, and going to war on account of it, and jeopardizing their careers for it.
My favorite aspect of Laura Rider’s Masterpiece is how complex it is when you look beyond the satire and purposeful cliches. Jenna is a learned person, quoting from Brideshead Revisited and playing Scrabble in different languages, yet her e-mails to Charlie are like something from a high school diary. Laura is a capable businesswoman with a hands-in-dirt job who wants to enter the literary world. Even though she tries to be more worldly like Jenna and fails, her personal development lends itself to understanding human behavior in a complex way. Hamilton crafts a story about educated vs. laboring people, sex vs. marriage, learning vs. experiencing, and satire vs. the actual absurdity of being a human.
I bought Laura Rider’s Masterpiece at a Goodwill because I loved her novel The Book of Ruth. When I got home and saw the low ratings on Goodreads, I was disappointed. But, I already owned the book so I went in with low expectations. Biscuit and I both found the novel quite funny and revealing regardless of the low ratings on Goodreads, feeling it is worth 4-5 stars.