If one were to pin the genesis of great debut novels on any given beast, there would be no better creature than Love. For Sophie McManus’ debut, she does not simply ride this beast and tame it; instead, The Unfortunates recognizes the beast in all of its facets and presents them all.
Aside from the beauty of The Unfortunates’ line-by-line prose, the novel’s great strength is its multifaceted approach. It is an ambitious piece that encapsulates generations and continent-spanning bank accounts while never feeling too callously panoramic. By contracting such massive ideas as Love and Money and History into an exploration (predominantly) of only three characters, McManus places these universal ideas on a pinhead until the themes seem to radiate from each: Cecelia Somner—the old, cold matriarch, wracked with a degenerative illness and the living embodiment of the brumal type of love, the quiet sufferer whose immense strength is both her family’s bane and bone; CeCe’s son, caustic George, the personification of maniacal, intoxicating love; and George’s wife Iris, plucked from the rougher end of the real world, most sane, and containing within her the surprising complexities which our definitions of “normal” can encase.
This triad exposes love and lays bare its various strengths because it’s drawn and quartered. George’s all-encompassing, fatal love for Iris leads directly to the decline in his mental state, as he ditches doctors and medicines for what is colloquially considered the ultimate drug. This enflames his fanatical belief in his own greatness and the indomitable art of his hideous opera, The Burning Papers, which sets in motion a crushing debt that falls upon Iris, all while the stabilizing but frigid CeCe seeks to diminish her affliction in a nursing home-cum-hospital, both unable and unwilling to bring to bear her authority. McManus never depicts any of these varying kinds of love in black and white, that everything is a fine haze, and that’s another strength of The Unfortunates.
The moments when George’s mania takes center stage are the novel’s finest. Take his hotel rendezvous with friend Bob, which McManus depicts with a disassociated fury that reads as a cross between Tom Wolfe and Bret Easton Ellis at their respective peaks, a scene wherein the reader is goosed, aroused and horrified all at once. These moments stand in stark contrast with most of the novel’s depictions of CeCe and Iris, CeCe the lonely, pretty vacuums between George mania and Iris’s comfortable, safer norm. When the manic energy of George’s vignettes intrudes upon CeCe, in another scene with which McManus destabilizes and dazzles the reader, the reader is momentarily set adrift as Iris is begging to be lifted out while embracing the plunge.
McManus does not fear to let such seemingly cancerous things as money or medicine or measured love act as her story’s heroes; it is an unromantic portrayal of love’s shortcomings which she regularly stands, from the novel’s first page to its last, across from the beast’s great power, allowing her portrait of the titular unfortunates, those who cease to be suspended properly between the two.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist, and book/music/art critic currently based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in VICE, VICE Sports, Sports on Earth, The Classical, and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter, @BDavidZarley.