When chaos collides with a cozy life
By Delmarie Martínez
A Brief Lunacy. Cynthia Thayer. Algonquin Books. $22.95. 241 pp.
It is not surprising that Cynthia Thayer’s A Brief Lunacy is an interesting read given that its plot deals with a couple in an isolated cabin, sex, lies and violence. The surprising element is that the couple in question is really an elderly pair who left the hectic pace of the city for quiet retirement in rural Maine.
This amazing story begins one October afternoon as Jessie and Carl, the two retirees in their cozy cabin, begin their daily rituals. It is a morning of the usual chores followed by the “what are you doing today” question. This day, however, will bring much chaos into their predictable lives, as they receive a phone call that will change them forever. Their mentally unstable daughter, Sylvie, has fled the psychiatric home where she resides. Their concern over their daughter’s whereabouts is quickly intertwined with the arrival of a young and handsome camper who was stranded in the woods. Jesse and Carl reluctantly offer him a warm place to spend the night not knowing the true identity of the stranger and the impact that he will have on their lives.
Thayer demonstrates her mastery of narrative as she truly paints, through her words, a portrait of her characters. Her vivid descriptions of the seemingly mundane allow the reader to understand the strong connection that Jesse and Carl have with each other. We see them eat, we see them paint and we see them make love with the comfort that only many years together can provide. This is why we are so moved when we see them suffer and confess the truths that were just too hard to bear.
A Brief Lunacy also questions the ability of really knowing and understanding others, even those closest to us. It makes us wonder if we can ever be certain that the reality we perceive is truly real. We see a character as well developed as Jesse struggle with so many contradictory emotions that seem to hit her like bolts. We see her as a mother and as a wife, but we also see her as a strong, independent woman who is searching to find meaning in her aging life. After all, this is someone who says to herself: “I gather bones of dead animals. Isn’t that crazy?”
Horace said that anger is a brief lunacy. Here we find that sometimes loneliness, despair, sadness, love and life can all be brief lunacies and that, as Jesse notes, there is no sense in looking for things to make sense: “Sometimes I feel as if I know everything to know about how and why we behave as we do. Then I wonder if I have a clue why I can’t seem to forget that I no longer smoke or that our dog has died or that there is nothing more I can do for my daughter.”
This is definitely not a story for the mellow reader. It is a gripping and intense thriller filled with violence and heartache. It is a struggle to find sanity, reason and salvation where there seems to be none. But, it is also a testament to courage and determination in the face of danger, not only for the fictional characters but also to the memory of those to whom the novel is dedicated. And ultimately, it leads the readers to question if there really is a line between sanity and madness or if we are all caught in a brief lunacy of our own.
Delmarie Martínez is an assistant professor at Nova Southeastern University.