Published by Algonquin Books on March 24, 2015
Too many novels that address the impact of child molestation on adult life turn into weepy, melodramatic stories that have all the depth of a Jerry Springer interview. The Wisdom of Perversity offers a lucid and subtle view of the subject, recognizing that lives are shaped by many experiences, not just one; that similar experiences affect different lives in different ways; that different people adopt different strategies for moving past the past; and that undoing damage often requires creative thinking that you won't get from Dr. Phil.
The Wisdom of Perversity takes place in two time settings. The first, beginning in 1966, involves two kids: Brian Moran and his friend Jeff Mark. Jeff's family is (to use Jeff's expression) weird. Jeff's wealthy cousin, Richard Klein, is an executive at NBC. Klein rudely introduces Brian to the adult world while Jeff's mother manipulates family members for Jeff's benefit.
A third child, Julie Mark, eventually enters the 1960s story, but she makes her first appearance in 2008. She is married to Gary Rosen and has a son named Zach. Gary is a legal analyst who is covering accusations that Sam Rydel, a former NBC page who worked under Richard Klein, is a child molester. Julie reconnects with her cousin Jeff, who is now the most beloved director in Hollywood, and with Gary, who is now a screenwriter/playwright, after learning that ugly secrets they have all been keeping for 40 years might soon be exposed. Or, if not, it might be time for all of them to expose their secrets to the world.
A number of Rafael Yglesias' characters are "scarred veterans of a nearly invisible trauma whose aftereffects had no true experts." They confront substantial questions: When should the past stay buried? Should private horrors be made public long after they have ended? Is exposing the truth worth the price of exposure? Which is worse: a child molester or an adult who enables a child molester? Can we judge people for what they become when they have no control over what they become? Is it possible to make something healthy out of desires that were kindled by "perversion"?
By being honest without becoming cheap and maudlin, The Wisdom of Perversity tells an emotionally affecting story. Yglesias changes pace with humor at unexpected moments. The humor serves to keep the drama from becoming oppressive. It works because, after all, life is pretty funny during the moments when it isn't tragic.
The Hollywood glitz takes a bit of edge off the story, which I view as the novel's primary weakness, but Yglesias makes it possible for the reader to feel compassion for Jeff despite the fact that Jeff's woes are softened by his fame and fortune. Some of the secondary characters (including Zach, Gary, and Sam Rydel) are underdeveloped, but that is a small quibble. This is one of the smartest, most engaging novels I've read that focuses on issues of child sexual abuse.