Among the Ten Thousand Things

By Julia Pierpont

(Random House, $26, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Julia Pierpont is a graduate of the NYU Creative Writing Program and has won a Rona Jaffe Foundation Graduate Fellowship. A native New Yorker who works at The New Yorker, Pierpont is a graduate of Barnard College and NYU’s MFA program. This is her debut novel.

What is this book about?

Jack Shanley, a famous New York artist with a long history of adulterous affairs – that’s how he met his current wife, Deb  – picks a bad choice for his latest inamorata, who, upon the dissolution of their affair, sends an anonymous package to the Shanley home, addressed to Deb. But when 11-year-old Kay takes a look, she discovers emails that chronicle the relationship. She shares this world-rocking information with her 15-year-old brother, Simon, who shares it with Deb, and we get to watch the shattering of what seemed to be a happy marriage and the new paths that each character must take despite still being connected to one another.

Why you’ll like it:

All unhappy families are not alike, and Pierpont does a wonderful job of delineating this one. She won praise for her quirky use of dialogue and syntax, flash-forwards and wise insights – unusual for a writer in her 20s – into the ups and downs of this marriage in particular and marriages in general. Especially poignant are the reactions of the children, caught up in a frightening new world they didn’t ask for and didn’t make but must live in anyway.

What others are saying:                 

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Long-simmering tensions boil over in the Shanley household to devastating effect in debut novelist Pierpont’s drama of domestic unravelling. It’s not that the news contained in the anonymous package is a surprise to Deb:  not the hundreds of emails documenting her husband’s affair and certainly not his lover’s cliched confessional which accompanies it. It’s that her 11-year-old daughter, Kay, stumbled upon the box first and that she and her 15-year-old brother, Simon, have now read their father’s messages (“i can’t explain why i get so sad when you make me so happy”) that makes the reality unbearable. And so begins the dissolution of the Shanleys or, at least, the Shanleys as they once were: Jack, the successful sculptor and not-unlikable narcissist married to Deb, the former ballet dancer who happily traded her career for motherhood. As their marriage crumbles, Jack and Deb set out on separate courses away from New York. Meanwhile, Kay and Simon contend with the loss while navigating their own coming-of-age struggles. We know how the story ends because Pierpont tells us: a spectacularly melancholy interlude midway through puts an end to any suspense. But suspense is hardly the point; it’s the characters’ rich emotional lives that propel the story forward. Deb and Jack and Simon and Kay could easily have been reduced to types—the suffering wife, the womanizing husband, the stoned teenage son, the sensitive tween daughter—but in Pierpont’s hands, they’re alive: human, difficult, and deeply lonely. It’s loneliness that’s at the novel’s core, hitting unsentimentally and with blunt, nauseating force. Which is not to say that there isn’t serious humor among the heartbreak (Kay’s penchant for writing Seinfeld fan fiction is a particular delight), and for all the book’s sadness, much of its lingering force comes from Pierpont’s sharp-witted detailing of human absurdity. A quietly wrenching family portrait.”

The New York Times Book Review calls it “…a novel about a family blown apart and yet still painfully tethered together, written by a blazingly talented young author whose prose is so assured and whose observations are so precise and deeply felt that it’s almost an insult to bring up her age. At 28, Pierpont has a preternatural understanding of the vulnerabilities of middle age and the vicissitudes of a long marriage…In truth, the writing and the storytelling make the twists and turns of a marriage between such shallow characters more interesting than they have any right to be…Among the Ten Thousand Things is…an impressive debut.”

“Pierpont’s concentrated domestic drama is piquantly distinctive, from its balance of humor and sorrow to its provocatively off-kilter syntax, original and resonant descriptions, bristling dialogue, snaky psychological insights, and escalating tension. . . . With acid wit and thoughtful melancholy, Pierpont catalogs the wreckage, mourns the death of innocence, and measures varying degrees of recovery, achieving a Salingeresque ambience,” says Booklist.

The New York Times says: “…[a] sharp, knowing dissection of an unraveling marriage…it shows a remarkably mature understanding of the delicate emotional balances in families—how feelings can flow back and forth like electricity in some kind of zero-sum game—and the subtle, irrational vicissitudes of people’s psyches. We follow first one character and then another as each tries to manage what has happened. It is an old story, a crumbling marriage, but Ms. Pierpont gives it fresh insights, making the particular unhappiness (and occasional happiness) of the Shanleys by turns poignant, funny and very sad.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “The perennial theme of marital infidelity is given a brisk, insightful, and sophisticated turn in Pierpont’s impressive debut. When their father’s emails to his former mistress are inadvertently discovered by siblings Kay Shanley, 11, and Simon, 15, the result is the unraveling of the family. Their father, Jack Shanley, is a well-known conceptual artist and self-indulgent seducer, and he sees his career go downhill due to a variety of circumstances. Deb, his wife, carries guilt from having broken up Jack’s first marriage, only to realize that he’s an inveterate womanizer who feels his indiscretions should be forgiven. Pierpont’s keen observational gaze illuminates a strata of Manhattan society in which money and privilege abide alongside the gritty, drug-and-alcohol-fueled margins of social behavior. She is also particularly adept at portraying alienation in the young (Kay starts writing dirty Seinfeld fan fiction in a notebook; Simon reads The Fountainhead because he knows his mother doesn’t want him to) and the parents’ awkward attempts to communicate with their self-protective children. Her sense of humor surfaces, especially in a scene at a gallery opening, when Jack’s carefully planned and shocking installation goes awry. Pierpont throws an audacious twist midway through the book, giving the slow, painful denouement a heartbreaking inevitability. This novel leaves an indelible portrait of lives blown off course by bad choices, loss of trust, and an essential inability to communicate.”

In its starred review, Library Journal says: “Recent MFA grad Pierpont’s first novel is an expertly crafted story of a family in crisis . . . [and] throws the reader into the middle of the family drama that may not be distinct but perhaps has never been this well articulated. The author plays with the narrative, giving us a snapshot of the characters’ lives to come over the following decades before zeroing in on the immediate aftermath. After a few disastrous weeks coping at home in Manhattan, Deb takes the kids to a family beach house in Rhode Island, while Jack, an installation artist at a crossroads in his career, flies to Texas. We hear alternating perspectives from Jack, Deb, Kay, and 15-year-old Simon, all of whom are richly drawn and heartbreakingly sympathetic. VERDICT Pierpont wields words like beautiful weapons. This short novel is a treat for fans of Jonathan Franzen, Jami Attenberg, and Emma Straub, and shows off an exciting new voice on the literary landscape.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch have copies of this novel.

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