Book Review: The Invaders
I don’t know why Karolina Waclawiak called her new novel “The Invaders”or why she allowed a poolside photo from decades ago to adorn the cover. Ignore these distractions, and you’ll find yourself involved in an absorbing tale that may remind you of the witty, satiric critiques of suburban America by John Cheever and John Updike. And maybe, also, of a lot of sex-and-drug-fueled soaps on TV– except that The Invaders is literature. It’s impressive that the author gets us to care about deeply flawed, despicable, destructive main characters -- members of a Connecticut country club beach community, where, as the author writes, “pursed-lipped wives idle their cars in the parking lot of the commuter rail station, watching their bar-car-riding husbands stagger off the train.” It’s no spoiler to note that the degeneration of characters and place in this narrative is implacable and inevitable, as a hurricane destroys what barely remains of civility.
The novel is structured as alternating first-person point of view chapters. There’s Cheryl, the 44-year-old trophy wife of Jeffrey, a successful businessman, and there’s Teddy, his ne’er-do-well addict son who got kicked out of Dartmouth and won’t help himself, except to the pills he finds in his neighbors’ medicine cabinets. For different reasons, Cheryl and Teddy don’t really belong to the privileged world of Little Neck Cove, but they do enjoy the advantages of living there. Cheryl wormed her way in by marrying an older rich man who came into a Ralph Lauren outlet store one day where she was working. A 40-something now with no family and no place to go, she pitifully hangs on, estranged from Jeffrey, who can’t stand her, and from the bored housewives and their horny husbands at the club. Out of desperation, Cheryl and young Teddy find a semblance of sympathy for each other, though the bonding is thin, no match for codes of class, race and tradition that define Little Neck Cove, and particularly hard on those who jump class. With sharp observations and taut, harsh verbal exchanges, the author captures the moment “when men stop looking” at women and the women physically and emotionally succumb to anxiety and despair. They know their rich husbands can attract younger bedmates on the prowl. For the well-off Teddy, who never had to “fake-it-to make-it,” as Cheryl did, there was never illusion. But, even for them, options end when they confront the fact that they're too young to inherit and too locked into old behaviors to find their own identity and place in the world.
The Invaders is set in fall, the season of beauty and death.Waclawiak explores this ambiguity with forceful prose and tragic irony, as Nature red in tooth and claw finally claims for her dysfunctional characters what they cannot claim for themselves. It’s a scathing and disturbing picture that she paints of this exclusive and seemingly unspoiled and idyllic community that harbors darkness and isolation, but it’s a convincing and compelling one.