The Art of Regret
By Mary Fleming
She Writes Press
Reviewed by Terry Galvan
While 1990s Paris wavers between its stupendous past and uncertain future, failed US-born photographer Trevor McFarquhar wallows in his own liminal space of resentment. He’s never forgiven his mother for dragging him to Paris as a child, nor his brother for adapting to French culture better than he. At 35, Trevor works in a bicycle shop with severe solvency issues, a problem extending to his romantic life as well, in which he breaks off any relationship at the first whiff of sentiment or seriousness. Only when he starts—and ends—an affair with his brother’s bombshell American wife does he start to turn his life around.
The Art of Regret comments on the difficulties of a troubled black sheep navigating his blended family and adopted culture. The premise offers a lot—turn-of-the-millennium Paris, a transcontinental multilingual family with dark secrets, with whispers of a proletariat revolution on the back cover. The marketing promised a postmodern Les Miserables at best, a Gen-X Sense and Sensibility at worst.
Unfortunately, this book reads like an unintentional farce of highbrow literature. While the opening chapters touch on niche topics—third-culture kids’ mental health, the social nuances of expat culture, and fine art circles—the book’s remainder fails to discuss them in any meaningful way. Plot twists and characters feel like cliches pulled from a hat: Thou-Shalt-Not-Covet-Thy-Neighbor’s-Wife-style adultery, convenient cancer diagnoses, tragic miscarriages, suicides, and freak accidents; tortured artists, overbearing mothers, conventionally beautiful women with vapid personalities, a dog-as-therapist-savior. As a reader I found this incredibly disappointing, as the narrative could have done so much more.
The first third of the book meanders through charged scenes that seem to promise a rich cultural critique, but the subsequent sections frustratingly fail to deliver. We meet Trevor’s uppity bourgeois family and groan at their petty sniping, which I hoped would develop into a novel of manners in the style of Austen or a social satire in the style of Wilde. But then Trevor’s sex-crazed mind overtakes the narrative at full throttle as he pursues an affair with his brother’s wife, and we’re thrown into a romance novel for a chapter or two. Once that fizzles out and Trevor exiles himself from his family and social circle, we watch his suicidal ideations—which could have made for a thrilling psychic meditation in the style of Kafka. But yet again the novel abruptly changes direction as Trevor bounces around his artists friends in the country, has a more flings, and adopts a dog, Eat-Pray-Love style. The middle feels like filler, as the only thing that prompts any sort of character development is his mother’s cancer diagnosis, which makes him so “regretful” that he decides to get in contact with his family again and confront his past.
Structural flaws weaken this novel. Scenes that could have truly “packed a punch”—the death of Trevor’s family members, his rough year at American college, his early love life—are told in cold, brief paragraphs. Instead of reliving through these pivotal moments through Trevor’s eyes, we watch him stare at the wall and periodically engage in cramped, stagnant dialogue about, well, nothing. What we’re left with is a troubled, nasty, self-hating man who becomes slightly less troubled, nasty, and self-hating by way of the suffering of everyone in his life. So much for the proletariat revolution.
Trevor could have worked as a sympathetic character if we learned about his motivations earlier in the book. We learn that he is cruel to his mother and brother due to bitterness about his father’s apparent suicide well into part two, over a hundred pages in. By that time, he had already slept with his brother’s wife, intentionally embarrassed his ex in public, blamed another ex for “ruining his career,” commented on the attractiveness of his eleven-year-old niece, and slept with that same niece’s mother. Everything about him is excessively sour and almost deliberately sadistic, such that I could not muster any pity for him. By the end of part two, we see exactly two redeeming qualities: he is slightly less racist than other Parisians, and he adopts a homeless dog. It’s difficult to care for a narrator with so little going for him.
Of course, the narrator need not be likable for quality prose—Joyce, Updike, and Hemingway built genres out of despicable protagonists. In fact, the prose goes so far as to name-drop Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, like he’s a part of the tradition of heroically dejected protagonists. Unfortunately, Trevor’s voice lacks sufficient irony, and not for lack of trying: he often says he’s wallowing in “What’s-The-Pointism” but the joke does not land. I kept waiting for an authorial wink or nod to indicate a critique of his character, that he is an unreliable narrator, but instead he is played as flatly sympathetic the whole novel.
Most troubling to me is the narrative’s lack of self-consciousness around Trevor’s toxic masculinity. Inexplicably, dozens of beautiful women throw themselves at surly, prickly Trevor, who doesn’t play any instruments, do any interesting drugs, make good art, or do anything that could make him attractive even in the “bad boy” manner. While I found Trevor’s narration banal overall, it took full—voluptuous—form while passing judgement on tiny details of women’s appearances. I was tempted to nominate some specific sentences for various Internet parodies mocking the excessive male gaze that permeates highbrow literature. My personal favorite was Trevor describing his sixteen-year-old niece as a nymphet—and this was after he ostensibly had become a better person.
Even if you chock up the excessive ogling to Trevor’s unsavory character, the women still fall into sterile, prepackaged, patriarchal stereotypes. Trevor’s mother is a meddling, prissy control freak; his brother’s wife is a flat Cool Girl who considers herself above her fellow housewives and homemakers, then a confirmed “bad mother” who “doesn’t care about her children” after she cheats on her husband. Trevor’s romantic interests are all manic-pixie-dream-girls; his family’s simpering housekeeper makes a point of living exclusively for her masters; even his employee’s wife is a nag. Trevor feels inconvenienced by the inanity of female-to-female dialogue, which in the book is mostly about how desperately they want (more) children. For all the attention to French cooking—one of the few parts I enjoyed—wives and maids prepare five to six elaborate dishes at once, magically and merrily with absolutely no prep time, while the men comment on if it’s “homemade enough.”
Most damning to me was the treatment of the character Bea. Trevor meets her at a party early in the book and immediately discounts her because she’s “plump.” Five years later he meets her again but cannot remember anything about her. As Trevor seems to have an encyclopedic memory of every bodily flaw of every woman in Paris, I found this unbelievable. Turns out, Bea’s recent weight loss rendered her unrecognizable, and irresistible. She’s later implied to be his first serious relationship, but only worthy of his attentions once she’s conformed to his physical standards. If this plot device was intended to show Trevor’s growth as a human being changing for the better—which the overall narrative points too—why does he not come to appreciate Bea’s personality along with her “plump” body? As it is, he only takes her seriously once she’s conveniently thin and has possibly developed an eating disorder.
As a lover of bildungsromans and someone fascinated by the nuances of cultural exchange, I was very disappointed—you could say regretful—about The Art of Regret. The insistent misogyny and lack of thematic resonances made it a difficult read for me. The plot points and character arcs, while apparently striving towards gravitas, don’t hang together well. While it’s clear Fleming’s style isn’t for me, I’d be very happy to take a look at any writing she has on the impending proletariat revolution.
Chicago’s complex social landscape inspires guest interviewer Terry Galvan’s writing, from the realistic to the fantastic to the downright horrifying. A former anthropologist and Fulbright grantee, Terry spends nights performing at literary events throughout the city, shopping their novel, and nursing their Catholic guilt with a good deal of whiskey. Follow Terry on Twitter @TerryGalvanChi and terrygalvan.com