When I was offered the opportunity to read First You Try Everything by Jane McCafferty, I immediately said yes based on one single fact – I loved the cover. Knowing that the book was about the dissolution of a marriage, the cover art on the book jacket is just genius. You can see it to the left, there – six rows of musical staves slowly unraveling. The coloration of the title’s font also changes – starting as a rosy pinkish red and ending as a deep maroon with a decidedly blood-like quality. If the dust jacket told such a great story, surely the novel beyond wouldn’t disappoint. And yes, I will totally read a book based on its cover art – guilty as charged.
“She hardly slept at all for the next three days. Each day she felt a little more unhinged. In certain moments, she was like a tightrope walker, the one who never should’ve been in that business, the one who falls down and looks back up at the rope and thinks, No way. Never again. I’m staying right here for the rest of my life. And then climbs back up.”
Ben and Evvie met and fell in love during college – a time when they were bound and linked by their similarities. Now in their early forties, something has gone wrong. Ben confronts Evvie, tells her he’s leaving her, and moves out hoping to share custody of their dog as they were never able to have children. Stunned, Evvie stoically enters the denial stage of grief, begins plotting outlandish schemes to get Ben to come home, and completely loses her grip on reality. Meanwhile, Ben is doing his best to juggle his own grief and guilt over Evvie’s obvious slide into mental illness while beginning a new relationship with a woman who’s the absolute antithesis of his first wife. And oh, the shenanigans that follow!
First and foremost, First You Try Everything was a complete win for me, but my reading was framed and influenced by something currently taking place in my personal life. My parents are going through a not-so-pretty divorce after 37 years of marriage and my mom is devastated in a major way. So what this means is that Evvie’s character, no matter how crazy she seems or the outrageous things she does that many readers won’t find realistic, is spot on. I love how McCafferty shows how Evvie’s passions become obsessions because she’s doing everything in her power to make sense out of her situation and gain some sort of control over these larger world problems since she’s lost any control she ever tenuously had over her own life. When everything you’ve ever known is ripped out from underneath you, when the co-dependent relationship you’ve defined yourself with has suddenly vanished, your sanity won’t be far behind.
That being said, Evvie isn’t entirely innocent and Ben isn’t really the villain. The story switches every chapter between their viewpoints which serves the novel well. Just when you think Ben is irredeemable, you realize how deeply he’s loved Evvie to the point of ignoring his own happiness – and just when you’re ready to cart Evvie off to the loony bin, she gives you a nugget of truth and clarity that stops you dead while you spend several minutes re-reading her observation. McCafferty’s ability to dig inside the psychological foundations of marriage, human connection, and how easy it is to lose ourselves in other people is simply amazing.
“For these visits home, Ben had been her skin. Ben had understood that the house of childhood cast a spell, gave her a form of multiple personality disorder, rendered her all the ages she had ever been inside of its walls. Without him, how was she to navigate the collision of selves? He’d seemed to love those selves, had lifted photographs out of an album and taken them for his own possessions…Now it seemed to her he’d rejected not just the self she was now, but all those other people too. The ones whose ghosts still haunted the old house.”
Despite the rather dour atmosphere I’ve described above, First You Try Everything is rich with a dry, witty, dark humor that keeps the story from drowning in its own bleakness. And while the novel doesn’t end with everything all peachy keen and promises of happily ever after, Evvie and Ben have both begun their journey from rock bottom with nothing but possibilities and hope for the future – with or without each other (you’ll just have to read to discover which!).
So, if you enjoyed Stewart O’Nan’s, The Odds, or the movie, Blue Valentine, I think you’ll find something to enjoy here. Also, this novel seems tailor made for book groups and will look lovely on your shelves!
About the Author:
Jane McCafferty is the author of the novel One Heart and two collections of stories, Thank You for the Music and Director of the World and Other Stories, which won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. She is the recipient of an NEA award, the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Award, and two Pushcart Prizes. She lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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