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A quintessence of dust? Book Review of Ardmore Endings.

Ardmore Endings struck me as a very American book. For instance, a British reader cannot fail to note the distance between places, and the characters’ nonchalant attitude to getting in the car or hopping on a train or a plane to travel to destinations which would seem remote on our crowded little island. The focus of the novel is Philadelphia and the settings radiate from there – not far by American standards – but on journeys many a Brit would feel a need to plan. So, there’s a feeling of spaciousness. There is a fleeting feeling of familiarity: Worcester, Boston, Cambridge, Rutland – but these are not the cities of what Nabokov called ‘mellow, rotting Europe’.

There is iced-tea on screened-in porches; air-conditioning or ceiling fans; mint juleps and club soda; flounder in white sauce; fish chowder; blueberry pancakes; butter almond ice cream – and hoagies (Yes, I had to look that up – they sound toothsome).

And there are the cars: Buicks, Cadillacs, Dodges, Packards and Chryslers. You fill them up at gas stations.

And finally, there is money. The Schusters are minted. They even own a bank. Now the world of their experience is more than an Atlantic away from mine. Their world is hardly ‘relatable’ – to use a ghastly word beloved of certain teenagers with limited horizons, impoverished ambitions and highly developed solipsism. But then mature readers don’t go to books for mirror images of their worlds. We go to literature to travel through hitherto unknown spaces and times, to stretch the imagination and enjoy a new compass.

Reidy’s novels usually involve the pursuit of enigmatic women. In this new departure we have an enigmatic woman as the (unreliable) narrator. In theory, Caroline Schuster has everything going for her: money, a promising academic career, a loving family, gentleman callers. The death of her father shakes everything up, and it soon becomes apparent that there are skeletons in the family cupboard (closet). It is Caroline’s obsessive quest to explain the mysteries that threatens to undermine her stability.

She becomes estranged from her family. With reason, or through prolonged and self-indulgent pique? A fair response or a poisonous over-reaction? She becomes compulsive about her academic work. Earnestly ambitious, or neurotic? This goes beyond academics, and everything in her life, it seems, must be written up and filed. She has a compulsive relationship with stationery. OCD? Though the family are not Roman Catholic, Caroline went to Catholic school. Is there a measure of Catholic guilt in her psyche? As with any writer worth reading, Reidy doesn’t answer these questions directly. Caroline’s decline is at first barely perceptible, and Reidy leaves much to the reader until her descent into unreason becomes inescapable. This is exceptionally well-managed without a hint of clumsy and unwelcome authorial intrusion.

Caroline pushes people away from her as if she is frightened of engagement. This is especially true of men. There are suitors and dates and shared meals but she backs off or provokes resistance in every case. Another field in which American culture varies from British mores is in its embrace of psychology or, more specifically, psychiatry. The joke runs that it is a country where even your shrink has a shrink. This difference was true at least until recently, when the pandemic and fears about climate change have fostered a cisatlantic preoccupation with mental health too. The great irony is that Caroline’s academic subject is psychology and specifically the question of ‘motivation’. This is almost a grim joke and indeed there are flashes of dark humour throughout the novel.

The dénouement is shocking and took me by surprise. It retrospectively unravels the family mysteries and explains the novel’s title. Caroline’s fixations are not merely psychological; they are symptoms of a profoundly existential crisis where motivation has no meaning. Her world has become a ‘quintessence of dust’.

It is interesting that Caroline has conversations about Hamlet for, like the Prince, she finds herself thinking ‘too precisely on the event’. Like the Prince, she finds that her world is one in which there appears to be a disjunction between motivation and action, and between action and outcome. Like him, ‘she is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.’

This is a subtle, thoughtful and rewarding book.