Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Out Late with Friends and Regrets by Suzanne Egerton

Book: Out Late with Friends and Regrets
Author: Suzanne Egerton
Publisher: Paddy’s Daddy Publishing

If it weren’t for a bad comb over, a walrus moustache, or the pesky little fact that he was born in 1816, Gustav Freytag could well have been a modern lesbian author—he was a soldier, scholar, poet, novelist, critic, playwright, editor, and publicist.

And five will get you ten that if he had access to Photoshop, he’d have designed his own book covers.

But Gustav Freytag was indeed a man, and his name is rarely muttered outside of certain literary circles because his novels, poems, plays, and critiques were mediocre at best. But for those who understand the philosophic roots of dramatic structure, Gustav Freytag is an unabashed rock star simply because he was able to expand upon Aristotle’s thesis from The Poetics that plot structure must have "a beginning, a middle and an end." Generally known by the catchy title, “Freytag’s Pyramid,” Gustav showed that ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama consisted of five, not three, necessary and distinct elements:

Freytag's Pyramid
Exposition—consists of early material providing the theme, establishing the setting, introducing the major characters, and sometimes providing early hints of the coming conflict.
Rising Action—describes an increase in tension or uncertainty that develops out of the conflict the protagonist faces.
Climaxrelates to the moment of greatest tension, uncertainty, or audience involvement. The climax is also called the “crisis” or “turning point.”
Falling Action deals with events that occur immediately after the climax. These events are usually the after-effects of the climax.
Resolutionusually entails a catharsis or release of dramatic tension. It can also be the content at the end of a story that ties up loose ends and reveals the final outcome of its conflict.

Of course, some modern literary theorists delve deeper into the constituents of plot structure—the best example being the lesser known, but linguistically curious, seven-part theory presented by Dr. Robert E. Longacre in The Discourse of Grammar.

And, since I’m feeling generous today, I’ll spare everyone my homily on the differences between Longacre and Freytag.

Suffice it to say, whether you call it dramatic structure, plot structure, narrative structure, or Freytag’s Pyramid—and whether you cotton to a three-part, five-part, or seven-part structure—in the end you have a book that consists of a sequence of events that may or may not have some distinct element of causality involved.

Enter the sweet, sad, funny, and engaging debut, Out Late with Friends and Regrets, by Suzanne Egerton. Fiona Hay married young, and allowed her life to be dictated by her mercurial husband. When he dies suddenly, she finds herself surrounded by the emptiness of her acquiescence. She is distanced from her former friends, alienated from her children, and her self-confidence is in tatters. But an old friend resurfaces, and helps her find ways to pull the pieces of her former life together, and reconnect and reclaim her independence. Fiona takes small steps and large, and eventually comes to the stark realization that she is likely gay.

With the help of a skillful mentor, some scary but solid decision-making, and a move to the big city, the newly named Fin finds the confidence to become the woman she was on the path to becoming before her life took a hard left turn into the world of matrimony. Along the way, she meets women, makes friends, has her heart broken, begins to reconnect with her daughter, settles on a new career, and comes face-to-face with a frightening stalker who could very well take away everything she has worked so hard to achieve.

Since I introduced Freytag’s Pyramid at the onset of this review, let me first examine Ms. Egerton’s story arc using it as a basis:

Exposition—Fiona’s husband dies, she’s estranged from her children, she has no friends, she lives in the middle of the country, and it’s altogether likely that she prefers innies over outies.
Rising Action—She sells her house, moves to the city, starts to make friends, and realizes she has a stalker whose behavior is escalating.
ClimaxShe comes face-to-face with her stalker.
Falling ActionShe makes some questionable decisions, but begins to repair relationships, and undertakes a new career path.
ResolutionFin is a self-realized woman.

Traditionally speaking, Out Late with Friends and Regrets fits within the guidelines of Freytag’s dramatic structure. However, as a reader, the rising action and climax, specifically related to the stalker, were too far removed and out of synch with the falling action and resolution. The result is that the stalker storyline and Fin’s journey feel like parts of two different stories sharing pages within the same narrative.

Suzanne Egerton
Still, Ms. Egerton offers up a long list of interesting and engaging characters, and sprinkles the narrative with entertaining, clever, and colloquial dialogue. Her pacing is quick, the detail is descriptive without being burdensome, and the humor is honest and charming. Most coming out stories march under the banner of “sturm und drang,” but Out Late with Friends and Regrets, in spite of its title, raises the colors of “transformation and empowerment” as its solemn standard.

Strictly speaking, Out Late with Friends and Regrets is long on story and short on plot. And while that may sound a bit like damning by faint praise, I assure you it is not. The story is equal parts journey and journal, and Fin’s narrative offers compelling exposition and insight into the life of a woman coming out of more than just one closet—think of it as watching a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, totally transformed.

I wouldn’t quite call Out Late with Friends and Regrets a romance, and I wouldn’t call it a mystery either. But whatever genre it fits into best, it is a story that is surprisingly hard to walk away from until you have finished reading it.