Meg Carpenter ghost-writes formulaic YA books, keeps deleting chapters of her “real” novel back to the same 43 opening words, lives in Dartmouth in a moldering cottage with a complete loser of a boyfriend who refuses for some philosophical reason to get a paying job. She is always short of cash, food, cell phone minutes, patience with the verbally abusive boyfriend. But she is bright, curious, very functional and quirky enough to like and she has a very smart and equally likable dog.
When Meg reviews a book called “The Science of Living Forever” for the review fee, she encounters some intriguing ideas about immortality. When a friend texts her for help managing an affair that her partner is about to stumble across, Meg casually tells her to push her car in the river and tell the partner that’s why she is late—and the friend does. When Meg meets an older man who attracts her, she fantasizes about him, goes home to her slacker boyfriend—and takes up knitting socks. Her friend Vi is working on a theory of a “storyless story” and the fab dog operates with a kind of Yoda-like wisdom and can sense people arriving before they are anywhere within earshot or sight.
In childhood, Meg stumbled across a mysterious cottage in the woods where she was introduced to magic, faeries and fortunetelling, and saw a curious ship in a bottle. Many years later the same bottle washes up on the beach at her feet. It turns out to have significance for the older not-yet-lover who is conflicted about his own live-in relationship with a woman more-or-less his own age. Oy vey. Everybody is somehow connected to everybody else. Everybody is shagging everybody else, too, or at least thinking about it. Most of the characters are extremely bright—writers, artists, gallery directors, university professors—all probing the meaning of life, reality, coincidence and deep metaphysical questions at every turn.
There is terrific description of the Devon countryside and many intense conversations over copious amounts of wine about what to do, why to do it and what it all means. Meg’s friend tells her to put some requests out to the universe and see what comes back. Meg is a confirmed skeptic but big change comes back—an unexpected check for a movie option that frees Meg to put some space between herself and loser-won’t-get-a-job-boyfriend Christopher, that ship in a bottle on the beach, a magical beach cottage that I wanted to move into immediately, a permanent gig writing a self-help column for a newspaper (more money for the starving freelancer), a workable concept–at last–for the breakout book, yarn to knit into socks and rhubarb to turn into jam.
Not much happens—events occur and Meg reacts to them but she only backs into change for much of the book so the sense of plot is almost missing. Maybe she is in a storyless story. Maybe her childhood friend Rosa did or did not throw herself under a train when she finished filming “Anna Karenina.” Maybe the author of the mysterious book was eaten by the mysterious beast of the Devon moors, if there is a beast, but maybe not. It sounds dreadful but Our Tragic Universe was actually an interesting read. I wanted to find out what happens. I didn’t mind that not too much does. I really loved that beachfront cottage—and the dog is great. You’ll love the dog.
Skip the book if you hate post-modern fiction, or writers and their underfunded angst, or endless conversations about ideas. But grab it if you like smart, good writing that pulls threads from everywhere and knits them into something more entertaining than a pair of socks.
Our Tragic Universe Scarlett Thomas | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010