By Joanna Hershon
A weekend in the country. Two couples — Sarah and Matthew, Kiki and Arman — reconnect after years of estrangement in a quaint upstate farmhouse.
The majority of “St. Ivo,” Joanna Hershon’s fifth novel, spans only a single weekend. Bookended by a series of jarring events near Sarah’s home in Brooklyn, the trip takes on a sinister tension as both couples suppress life-altering secrets.
Hershon (“A Dual Inheritance,” “The German Bride”) maintains a quiet terror throughout this slim, eccentric novel. Though it moves at a harrowing pace, this is not a traditional thriller. The perspective focuses narrowly on Sarah’s interior, giving us intimate access to her paralyzing social anxieties and complicated marriage to Matthew. The friction resides, innovatively, in the agony of interpersonal misunderstandings, the awkwardness of old friends — now strangers — trapped together for a period of days. What to reveal, and what to gloss over? How much to admit about how their lives have changed, and about who is missing?
Hershon writes of Sarah: “Soon enough she would lie in a strange bed, consumed with anxiety, made worse by the lie she’d just told and the many more she was sure to tell now that the first lie was out there. Soon enough she’d be nothing but a feeble cage for her thundering heart.” The novel is steeped in this hushed paranoia: the jumpy fear that permeates contemporary life, as its characters simultaneously long for connection and refuse to let themselves be seen.
Sarah and Matthew’s adult daughter, Leda, lingers like a spectral figure over the book. The mystery of Leda — what happened to her, why her parents are so traumatized by her absence — adds a rich layer of suspense. Her absence makes for a painful read at times; you feel almost itchy, wondering whether it’s possible for Sarah to reconnect with Kiki while also hiding the most vulnerable part of herself. Kiki and Arman only know Leda as a child, and it is painful to watch the couples dance around the truth of Leda’s history. We wonder whether Sarah can really connect with Kiki — or anyone — while also hiding the most vulnerable part of herself.
Structurally, Hershon takes unconventional risks. The book begins and ends with disjointed encounters that do not culminate in a clean sense of narrative arc. This can feel disconcerting, as characters are introduced one by one — some returning, others disappearing entirely. Some have a profound effect on Sarah, others she never considers again. Readers may be ambivalent about the sheer number of strangers she encounters; or wonder why Hershon includes these apparitions at all. Dynamics between the couples are messy throughout, jolting and awkward, sometimes confusing. The book does not grant us a neat, circular ending, and Hershon is not afraid of ambiguity. But for me, these aspects function as a part of the novel’s charm: fiction full of complexity, devoted to reality.
And in the end, a larger sense of purpose crashes down in a satisfying burst. The love Sarah has for her daughter is so vast, so unyielding, it’s impossible to separate from her everyday interactions. Leda lives in the invisible corners, the innocent spaces, in an old friend’s kitchen and on the long walk home. There is no Sarah without her secret, and the enormity of that marking cannot be condensed into an easy story. She carries it tirelessly. She seems to ask, What does it mean to be a mother? And how can one exist both inside and outside such a concept? We, along with Sarah, must search everywhere for meaning.