This book – the first of Roorbach’s that I’ve read – seems like a stage play that took a wrong turn in the Department of Genre Assignations (DGA) and ended up as a novel. This is not exactly a problem, of course, since novels and plays rely on many of the same techniques: characterization, conflict, the three-act structure. In fact, many of the fiction professors I’ve known have urged their students to study plays for insight on how to move their stories and novels forward through scenes rather than exposition and how to convey information efficiently through gestures and dialogue. This is not to say that The Remedy for Love is a bad novel; it’s not. It’s readable and suspenseful, and its two key characters are well drawn. As a novel, I’d give it about a B. If it were a play, though, I think it could be fantastic, maybe even an A+. I’ll explain.
At the beginning of the novel, Eric – a lawyer in a small Maine town – is in the supermarket buying a lot of hoity-toity groceries in advance of a visit from Alison, whom we don’t yet know is his estranged wife. Ahead of him in line is a young woman who appears to be homeless; she’s buying items like boxed wine and ramen noodles and instant macaroni and cheese, and when the time comes to pay for her groceries she discovers that she does not have enough money to do so. The checkout clerk is surly with her, indicating Eric and the other customers in line behind him. To demonstrate that he isn’t the impatient jerk the checkout clerk thinks he is, Eric chips in $20 so the woman can buy her groceries. Later, in the parking lot, Eric sees the homeless woman awkwardly carrying her six bags of heavy groceries out of the lot and toward a highway that leads out of town, and he stops and offers her a ride home. In Eric’s car, they exchange autobiographies: her name is Danielle (for now, she says) and emphasizes that she attended college and was once a teacher. Eric confesses to the fact that he and his wife are taking a trial separation but have agreed to meet for dinner once per month to talk and gauge the integrity of their marriage. Eric expected Alison that night, but he confesses to Danielle that she has stood him up several times before.
While all of this is going on, a storm is brewing. Everyone Eric comes into contact with has something to say about the storm of the century, which appears to be descending upon the town of Woodchurch, Maine even as the exposition of this novel plays itself out. Even in the few minutes that it takes for Eric to follow Danielle’s directions – which lead down the highway, to a road leading out of town – the snow intensifies noticeably. (Think about all the cool things that could be done with lighting if this were a stage play – shadows of snowflakes, moments of near-darkness as a storm cloud passes the sun! I know, I know – I’ve made my point.) Danielle directs Eric to stop by the side of the road. The only building in sight is a veterinary office. Eric knows the office and has taken his dog there in the past; he no longer does so because a) Alison has custody of the dog, and b) he recently won a lawsuit against the vet on behalf of a client of his, and as a result the vet now hates him. This fact will become important in a moment.
Eric asks Danielle where she lives, and she points to a trail that leads down to the river. The trail is already mostly obscured by snow. Eric begins trying to persuade her to come back to town – he’ll drop her at a friend’s house or at a church – but she insists that all she wants is to be left alone to go home. (Danielle is generally surly toward Eric during this scene, although every so often she seems to appreciate his help and his gestures of concern). Eric agrees to let her stay here but insists on following her to her door and helping carry her groceries. He noticed earlier that Danielle is limping, and she confirms that she has sprained her ankle. He follows her lead; the trail descends precipitously through the woods and is almost completely obscured by the snow, which falls harder with every minute. On top of that, the sun has set, and the woods are pitch dark and dangerously cold.
Eventually the trail leads them to a shack – one room with a small sleeping loft, no water, no electricity, no utilities besides a wood stove, no sanitary facilities besides a soon-to-be-buried outhouse. Eric is mortified by the conditions in which she lives and again pressures her to come back to town with him, but she insists that he leave her alone. Finally he complies. His slippery uphill walk back to the highway takes forever. He makes several wrong turns. He never stops thinking about Danielle and worrying about how she will survive the storm. And he also keeps thinking about Alison, his excitement at seeing her later that night jockeying with a fatalistic sense that she won’t show up, that their marriage is over and he might as well admit it.
He reaches his car, and his vision rests on the expensive groceries he purchased: imported aged parmesan cheese, two $35 bottles of wine, fresh pasta, eggplant, gourmet olive oil. His mindset at that moment is that Alison won’t show up, and of course he realizes that even if she does, that won’t change the fact that Danielle needs the food much more than he does, and he resolves to venture down the trail one more time and bring Danielle his groceries. The hike is even more treacherous than before. It takes forever, but he makes it. Danielle is furious at him for coming back; she screams obscenities at him and comes close to attacking him physically, but she does eventually accept the food, and Eric leaves to climb back up the hill in what are now near-whiteout conditions.
I can imagine that some of my readers might be a little puzzled at this point about why I think this novel would be such a great stageplay. Snow-covered embankments don’t translate to the stage especially well, and plays thrive on conflict, so who would want to see a man slipping and sliding his way back and forth along an icy trail in Italian loafers while the two possible avenues of conflict (Alison and Danielle) are offstage? Well, that’s all true. But everything I’ve summarized above happens in the first 25-30 pages of the novel. The bulk of the book (approximately 260 of its 310 pages) takes place in the cabin where Danielle is squatting – and this cabin would make the perfect setting for a play and would even allow the director to maintain Aristotle’s three unities of time, place, and action, and who doesn’t like Aristotle’s three unities of time, place, and action? Certainly not anyone I know.
When Eric gets back to the highway the second time, the veterinary hospital has been shut down for the night and his car is gone. Eric concludes that the veterinarian had his car towed for being parked on her property. His cell phone is in the car, so he has no way to call for help. He tries to break into the veterinary office and even injures his shoulder trying to break the door down, and he knocks on the door of the only house in the vicinity but finds only a crazy hoarder who seems unable to answer any of Eric’s questions or lend him a phone. So after exhausting all of these options, he heads back down the trail yet again to face the furious Danielle, who shouts at him and hits him and accuses him of being a stalker and a rapist and any number of other things but ultimately allows him to stay.
This of course, is where the novel gets good, and where a play would get even better. The one-room cabin with a small sleeping loft could be rendered in perfect detail on stage, and Roorbach conveys both characters in enough detail that they would come to life on stage as well: Danielle in her enormous stinky coat, the badly sprained ankle, the hair on the back of her head inexplicably and messily cut off, with the exception of some dirty, matted remnants, and Eric in his soaked Italian shows and his inability to stop checking his jacket pocket as if his phone were there and he could see if Alison had sent him a text. The relationship between Eric and Danielle becomes the focal point of the novel, as they spend about 72 hours together – first trapped in the cabin killing time, then trying to salvage the cabin as an avalanche begins to pull it toward the river, and finally escaping from the cabin and making their slow return trip to the highway just moments before the cabin slides off the hill.
Just about everything that you might imagine would happen in this situation happens. Eric cooks fabulous food for Danielle. He confesses to her about his failing marriage. She tells him about her husband Jimmy, and for a long time the details she provides about Jimmy are so disparate and baffling (he’s an elementary school teacher! He’s an Army Ranger!) that Eric has no idea whether he is real or fictitious. Remember all the talk about the baby in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The discussions about Jimmy aren’t quite that crazy, but they come close. The fact that Eric is a lawyer is convenient during these discussions. He thinks about all the strategies he has used or seen other lawyers use to deflect unpleasant truths, and the reader becomes his accomplice in trying to figure Danielle out. As time passes, both Eric and Danielle bathe – the old-fashioned way, in a tub on the kitchen floor, in snow that has been melted on the stove – sleep – first apart, then together – and kiss, but while all of this is going on, the charged, frenetic, contradictory banter between Eric and Danielle never stops, and the reader is never entirely sure who is telling the truth and what exactly is at stake. I began to think that I’d like to see this novel adapted for the stage right after I began saying to myself that this novel reminded me of David Mamet’s Oleanna – two characters, the older male and established, the younger female and precariously positioned in early adulthood, a confined space, cross-cutting sexual innuendo, and all kinds of emotions on hyperdrive.
But what I would really like to see rendered on stage is the avalanche. There are two key avalanche scenes (not including the final one, in which Eric and Danielle see the cabin fall in the river after they have escaped). The first takes place on the second night of their confinement. They hear a loud noise – snow and/or ice falling off trees or other heights behind them – and then one wall of the cabin is uprooted from its foundation. Two huge pine branches (they are described as “trunk-size”) enter the cabin in the place where the wall used to be. Eric and Danielle work frantically; they nail a large wool blanket where the missing wall used to be and then burn as much wood as they possibly can in the wood stove in hope that the heat will cause the wall of snow where the cabin’s wall used to be to freeze and therefore provide stability and prevent the cabin from falling down the hill any farther. It works for a while – until the second avalanche scene, which I’ll tell you about in just a moment. This process of nailing up the blanket and melting some of the snow and then letting it solidify as ice takes quite a while, and it is really suspenseful. I thought of Stephen King often – partly for the Maine setting, of course, but also because Roorbach’s ability to convey suspense in characters pushed to their absolute limits rivals King’s.
The second avalanche scene takes place right after Eric wakes up and leaves the cabin to scout out possible avenues of escape while Danielle is still asleep in the loft. He comes back to the cabin in a good mood: he has begun clearing a path and has decided that the best route is not to walk uphill the way they came in but to follow the ledge above the river until they reach a highway overpass that Eric knows is a mile away – all of this is more difficult than it sounds, of course, because over six feet of snow have fallen, so the path Eric clears for them looks more like the Minotaur’s labyrinth than like a nice clear, salted path on the campus of a New England campus. He enters the cabin ready to announce his plan to Danielle, but he finds her absolutely irate at him for leaving. She stands in the sleeping loft (the requisite allusions to Romeo and Juliet are all in order, Your Honor) and pulls the ladder up so he can’t come up to her. First, she works her way through a box of matches, lighting them one by one and flinging them down to the first floor while Eric stomps them out and pleads with her to stop and reminds her that they spilled kerosene on the floor the night before. Item by item, she throws every single object in the loft at Eric, beginning with the matches and proceeding through the bed frame and mattress, the contents of a small bookcase, and even the bucket in which she has been peeing, which she aims directly at his face, thoroughly soaking him. Finally, she takes off her clothes and throws each item at Eric one by one: enormous coat, multiple layers of sweaters and pants, threadbare underwear. At that moment, when she is naked and screaming bloody murder at Eric for leaving the cabin without her, the floor of the cabin gives way again. They both turn and watch the stovepipe disengage from the wall since the floor that is holding it is inching away from the back wall. It’s a fantastic scene, full of everything that makes good drama: the undeserved abuse of a decent guy, absolutely soul-rupturing madness, dozens of tiny fire hazards, nudity, imminent death of all parties. A play adaptation of this novel would need to have some kind of parental advisory attached to it, yes – and any theatre that produced it would have to take out some extra fire insurance, and there would have to be some panels on the stage that could move independently from the rest of the stage to simulate the avalanche (but that wouldn’t be a problem for a decent professional theatre, would it?) – but the extra trouble would be worth it.
I know you’re probably thinking that I’ve given everything away in this review, but I really haven’t. There’s lots more, and while I like the idea of a play based on this novel more than I like the novel itself, I still recommend it – especially for a flight or a beach vacation or an afternoon at the DMV, or even a long holiday weekend like the one we have coming up in a few days. If you live in San Francisco, you’re welcome to borrow my copy.