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Bottle Grove by Daniel Handler

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing on August 27, 2019

Novels about marriage (as opposed to romance) seem intended to persuade readers to remain single, which in my experience is good advice. Bottle Grove merges a giddiness of romance theme with a suffocation by marriage theme and adds a bit of crime to darken the plot. The overarching theme is that nothing remains static, no matter how much you might want your life to be untouched by change, a theme that is summarized in these lines: “You meet people and you tell them stories. You meet someone, you marry them, and they’re not part of the story you’re in. They are it. You’re the same story and it changes, every living day, you can never, never keep up.”

The story involves two married couples but it begins with two single men. Martin Icke and Stanford Bell own a bar called Bottle Grove in a place called Bottle Grove, a wooded area in San Francisco. The novel Bottle Grove is set during the height of the dot com years. A couple of wealthy characters work in the tech industry, early developers of the phone technology that allows phones to be tracked, making it possible for obsessive husbands to keep an electronic eye on their wives’ travels.

The story starts with a wedding at the bar. Martin meets Padgett, a drunken waitress supplied by the caterer. Stanford meets Reynard, a philandering vicar who disappears after a drunk driving accident. The groom is Ben Nickels and his bride is Rachel, who watches Reynard’s fiancé Nina scream at Reynard during the reception and wonders how much time will pass before she is screaming at Ben. He has not seen her true self because if people saw each other’s true selves before marriage, they would never wed. Rachel’s hope is to continue deceiving Ben “even, especially, when I want to tear my own eyes out and cannot sleep from trouble.”

Martin and Padgett are only together for a few days before a fellow known as the Vic intrudes on their budding relationship. The Vic’s life has intersected with Rachel’s in a depressing way that ties the stories together. Oddly enough — although it turns out to be not so odd at all — Martin is undisturbed by the Vic muscling in on Padgett. After all, Martin’s bar needs an infusion of money and the Vic has a lot of it, even if it is mostly the pretend money that fueled the dot com days. Martin suggests that Padgett move some of the Vic’s money in Martin’s direction. “She stands up then and there it is, plain in front of her, the two of them and how desperate they are.”

Bottle Grove is a novel of snappy dialog and witty prose. The main characters have complicated personalities. Shallow characters lurk in the novel’s background as comic foils. Rachel (complicated) comes into the bar twice a week to complain about Ben (foil), who needs an app to remind him to be spontaneous. Reynard is like Jekyll and Hyde, both shallow and complicated as he ghosts through the story. Nina is a shallower version of Padgett, with whom she bonds over alcohol and her need for the security that (she believes) only a husband can provide.

Readers who do not like a book unless they like the characters should probably avoid Bottle Grove, as the characters tend to be self-centered and ethically challenged. Some are impulsive, some drink too much, most are barely in control of their lives, except for two tech moguls who control everyone else. None of the characters are admirable but they are recognizably human, doing their best to keep up with a rapidly changing world.

The story is dark, sometimes suggesting that horrors lurk just over the horizon. The plot moves forcefully, surprising the reader with sudden changes of direction, looping in ways that define new and unexpected relationships between the characters. Unpredictability is both the novel’s strength and the antidote to stagnation. Life is always changing in unexpected ways. The novel argues that even if the changes are not always positive, people who embrace the inevitability of change will never want it to end.


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