The premise of this novel is a fascinating one: what would happen if a lesbian and a gay man got married? Zink raises the stakes by posing this question in the context of an all-women’s college in Virginia in the 1960’s. Peggy Vaillaincourt’s parents know she is odd (her gym suit never quite fits right, she wants to join the army, and so forth), and her mother’s response to these quirks is to declare her daughter “a thespian” (4), apparently without irony. Zink accomplishes a lot of spot-on characterization in the novel’s opening pages; an example I especially enjoy is the moment at a barbeque when Peggy “recognize[s] the woman everybody said was the maintenance man at the elementary school. It was indirectly her fault that Peggy thought of “man” as a job title” (4). Equally efficient is this passage about Peggy’s parents: “Her father was an Episcopal priest and the chaplain of a girls’ boarding school. Her mother was his wife – a challenging full-time job. This was before psychologists and counseling, so if a girl lost her appetite or a woman felt guilty after a D&C, she would come to Mrs. Vaillaincourt, who felt important as a result. The Reverend Vaillaincourt felt important all the time, because he was descended from a family that had sheltered John Wilkes Booth” (2-3).
Peggy’s soon-to-be husband is Lee Fleming, a “famous poet” who teaches at Stillwater College (where Peggy enrolls). Oxymorons aside, Lee is the son of a prominent family and is perpetually an embarrassment to his parents, who give him a house on the far side of Stillwater Lake in hope of keeping him out of the public eye. After a while, he begins teaching at the college, where he is known for bringing other poets to campus, arranging for them to teach a class or give a reading, and then getting drunk and sleeping with them. Peggy meets Lee when she petitions for an exception to a rule that says freshmen are not allowed to take Lee’s writing workshop. Peggy at the beginning of the novel is a woman of great ambitions: she wants to go to New York and be a playwright (in some ways Peggy and Lee’s dynamic is identical to that of the couple in Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You – though Mislaid is the better novel).
Lee does not allow Peggy into his class, but he does take her home in the canoe he commutes in, and then they engage in an intense interlude of sex. Lee is enchanted by the newness of sex with a woman, and Peggy, who has never had sex with anyone before, feels “she [was] being held in the palm of God’s hand… because he was a man and powerful, physically. In all her fantasies she’d been the man, and had to please some pleading lover. But now a person had voluntarily dedicated himself to serving her desires. She had never expected that, ever. It violated her work ethic” (12).
Soon Peggy is pregnant. She and Lee get married, and Peggy drops out of school. Time passes quickly (for the reader, that is; probably not for Peggy), and Peggy and Lee have a son named Byrdie and a daughter named Mireille, whom they call Mickey. Lee is back to his carousing with his famous-poet friends on the college’s dime, and Peggy resents having left college. She still cherishes her goal of one day becoming a playwright in New York. Throughout this time, Stillwater Lake, which seems to be a symbol of the general health of Peggy and Lee, becomes murky and muddy, its water level depleting, its shoreline shifting around. One day Peggy tries to drive her car into the lake while her children watch. She had a compulsion to commit suicide, but as soon as the car begins to sink she regrets it and hurries out of the car and back to land. This scene, by the way, is yet another parallel to Everything I Never Told You – the connections between these books is getting a bit eerie.
When Lee considers taking Peggy to a psych ward after the above incident (“Driving a motor vehicle into a lake in front of your kids is not against the law – on private property it’s not even littering – but it’s madness” .) He also desperately wants to be able to carry on his love life with men without having to tiptoe around Peggy all the time. One of the plausible injustices of this novel is that while Lee carries around an active love life with men, Peggy does not have the equivalent with women. She lives a very isolated life, as an unloved faculty wife at the all-women’s college from which she dropped out, with no one around except her kids and her gay husband and his lovers. Her parents don’t quite disown her, but they are deeply uncomfortable around her, and she feels the same around them.
To avoid the psych ward, Peggy packs in a rush and leaves. She puts Mickey in the car and asks Byrdie – who is about nine – to get in the car too. This scene is excruciating: Lee is present, and Byrdie has to physically and publicly choose between his parents. He refuses to get in the car, and Peggy feels she has no choice except to drive away. Suspecting (correctly) that Lee would assume she went to New York, Peggy drives just a little bit south of the college to a town near where she grew up. She uses the stolen birth certificate of a child who died to give herself and Mickey new identities: from here on out, Peggy’s name is Meg and Mickey’s name is Karen. Their relationship reminds me a lot of the mother-daughter relationships in both Jonathan Franzen’s Purity (which is amusing, since Franzen has a blurb on the cover of Mislaid) and Mona Simpson’s A Regular Guy.
Except in this novel there’s a twist. The new names are not the only altered variable in Meg and Karen’s lives: the dead child whose birth certificate Meg steals was black, so Meg and Karen begin their new lives as black people. This is an intriguing plot element that I never completely believed, though my disbelief didn’t stop me from enjoying the book. Karen is characterized often as having long, flowing blonde hair, and over and over again she and her mother have to remind people that she’s black. When Meg registers Karen for school, the registrar offers to check the wrong box and have Karen “officially” declared white, but Meg declines the offer. “We’re black and proud,” she says. Zink prepares the reader for this development by making reference to the “muddy waters” (again with the lake) of the Virginia gene pool – and yes, of course I know that there are people who appear Caucasian who have African-American ancestors, and vice versa – and I’ve read enough Faulkner to know that Zink is not the first writer to craft a plot like this (though I’m not sure whether I “believe” Light in August or Absalom, Absalom! any more than I believe Mislaid, though I admire their brilliance as works of art). But whether I find it plausible or not, this little subterfuge works. Meg and Karen live as squatters in an abandoned house, and over time (fifteen years or so), Meg develops a small circle of good friends, a reliable livelihood (think Walter White), and even – eventually – a girlfriend. When Karen grows up and is ready to go to college, she and Temple – her boyfriend and the “other black kid” in her class – decide to go to the University of Virgina – which is where Meg/Peggy’s son Byrdie is also enrolled.
The novel does not abandon Lee and Byrdie during all the years when Peggy and Mickey are living as Meg and Karen. We learn of Byrdie’s prep school and college education, Lee’s settling into a relationship with a long-term partner, and Lee’s unending efforts to find Peggy and Mickey. I won’t tell you exactly how the family reunites, except to say that the ending of the novel is extremely well done. Both Lee and Peggy are their flawed selves, still living in ruts of their own creation but also willing and able to acknowledge their love for their children and their remorse for hurting one another. This novel is a quick read and very compelling – perfect for a plane or beach – and I recommend it.