Cressida Hartley, a graduate student in economics and a casual artist, has retreated to her parents’ A-frame in California’s Sierras to finish her dissertation, a venture that she hopes will take a few months. Instead, it’s years before she comes down off the mountain, years in which she veers both slightly and wildly off course from the life she had planned.
Michelle Huneven’s fourth novel, Off Course* is a delicate character study, one that is deeply rooted in setting. Like her Shakespearean namesake, Cress is at times difficult to like, but always believable, always human — flawed and interesting. Her dissertation languishes while Cress is willingly seduced by the jolly (and non-monogamous) owner of the local lodge, a gathering place for the mountain’s residents and visitors. This affair, quick to to start and quick to finish, would have necessitated only a minor course correction on Cress’s part — but then she meets an intriguing — and married — carpenter.
This is the sort of affair that serves as the backstory or the amusing antics of the best friend/sidekick in romantic comedies, but Ms. Huneven spins the relationship into a masterpiece of characterization. What seems incomprehensible — why an intelligent, feminist, career-oriented woman would spend years of her life on a man who’s often emotionally unavailable and always married — is made comprehensible by the way the novel tracks Cress’s decisions and delays, the disturbances in her understanding of herself. Though she’s an economist, Cress neglects the cost-benefit analysis that could save her grief; and yet, how does one put a price on love?
What I loved most about this novel was Ms. Huneven’s attentiveness to the setting. The land, the sky, the weather, the animals of the Sierras — all seem to seduce Cressida just as much as the men who live on the mountain. If she were a professional artist, she thinks, she would have wanted to work in landscapes. The double edge of the landscape’s isolation and consolation slices through Off Course, exposing not only the tradeoffs Cress makes, but our own concessions to love.
Tomorrow: An Interview with Michelle Huneven, Author of Off Course
*My thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.