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Modern Life With A Witty, Unsettling Edge

Meet Tom. Like a lot of us, he's been putting off becoming an adult. Thirty is the new 20, after all. He is sliding into his 40s, but his mother still pulls out her checkbook after lunch. He's never had a reason to get a real job or a home where one doesn't encounter a daily dose of vomit on the pavement outside. That is, until he and his wife decide to have a baby.

In her witty novels and short stories, New Zealand author Emily Perkins has been chronicling the lives of young men and women uncomfortable in their own skin, and Tom is a classic Perkins narrator: a formerly promising screenwriter slumming on a vampire script because artistry doesn't pay. Too old to find poverty romantic but too arrogant to go full-on careerist, his method of coping is to rack up credit card debt and deal with it later.

As the novel opens, Tom immediately tells us his wife, Ann, is dead. "If I could build her again using words, I would," he says. And, in a way, he tries, obsessively recounting the details of their last months together as if a new ending might emerge in the retelling.

Rather than being relentlessly grim, however, Novel About My Wife is a tense and surprisingly funny read. Ann's death looms in the future, and it's not clear what the threat is: the homeless man she thinks might be following her; Tom and Ann's possibly haunted London house; the foreclosure notice he is hiding from her? They're willing to gloss over everything and hope for the best.

It's a cliche to say a novel examines "the way we live now," but Perkins squarely confronts what Tom and Ann refuse to: the way we live with crushing debt, lack of job security and the terrifying sense of being one crisis away from total chaos. The fact that she does so with a gripping story and a very dark sense of humor is remarkable.

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