In this nervy, self-conscious debut novel, British writer Thirlwell airs the unspoken anxieties and confusions of two lovers, crafting a talky deconstruction of a relationship. Moshe is a character actor, "the sketchy one, the sardonic one, the oddball cool"; Nana is an architecture student, "tall, thin, pale, blonde, breasty." It is the off-stage narrator, however, who is the book's most notable presence, with his countless digressions, "simple" theories, lengthy explanations and bossy directives. Despite his repeated assertions that the book is not about sex ("sex isn't everything"; "sometimes I think that this book is an attack on sex"), Moshe and Nana are constantly experimenting ("oral sex, use of alternative personae, lesbianism, undinism"), though their experiments usually end in failure. This is true of their biggest experiment, a three-way affair involving Anjali, an Anglo-Indian actor friend of Moshe's. Reading Thirlwell's novel is similar to watching a film with the director in the room, guiding the viewer through every scene. While many of the resulting narrative flourishes are clever or endearing, their humor and intellectual cachet wear thin as the ratio of window dressing to substance tips heavily in favor of the former. Still, Thirlwell's brave attempt to debunk the primacy of sex (while elaborately describing his characters' hapless pursuit of it) is surprisingly convincing.
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Toward the end of this lushly ambiguous story of an unconventional love triangle, the first-person but anonymous narrator observes, "I do love Milan Kundera. I love him very much." That much is obvious, but the other love affairs in the book are considerably more murky. Nana loves Moshe, and Moshe loves Nana. Anjali also loves Nana, and so Moshe and Nana welcome her into their relationship. The plot concerns what will become of this menage a trois and why Moshe and Nana share one another with Anjali when neither of them is in love with her. To facilitate the latter story, the narrator frequently speaks directly to the reader discussing everything from architecture to predestination. It's an entertaining, if eventually tiring, concept, but Thirlwell uses it gamely to tackle big themes, such as the conflict between morality and politeness. He doesn't quite pull off these frequent Kunderaesque tangents, but the quirky narrative style does make for a wonderfully complete picture of three lives. A funny and surprisingly wise first novel. John Green
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