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Book Review: The Vixen Amber Holloway

Regal House Publishing

Although the title of writer Carol LaHines’s novel The Vixen Amber Halloway may suggest romance, and the fleshy red and orange woman’s face on the cover supports that assumption, you’ll think again once you get into the opening paragraph that begins, “Some may have questioned my sanity.” Think suspense and thriller. LaHines’s fascinating narrator, Ophelia, is decidedly pathological. And here’s the surprise – she’s also sympathetic, humorous, intelligent -- a deeply damaged woman telling her tale to a prison psychiatrist in preparation for a hearing before a parole board, but it’s not a confession.

Ophelia is a professor of medieval studies, with a specialty in Dante, though the reader never learns about the gap between her horrific childhood and her successful life as a university scholar. Deeply immersed in her field, she intuitively references Dante’s “Inferno,” that iconic medieval notes from the underground. Her dissertation was on - “Hell’s Inner Circles: Notions of Relative Fault and the Scourge of Eternal Punishment.” Her current research is on the jaws of hell, an image of a gaping monster’s mouth that leads to the underworld. Ophelia’s interest is not in crime but in sin. Not antisocial as much as reclusive, preferring to spend time doing research rather than dating, she succumbs one day to a friend’s fixing her up with a blind date. It turns out that Andy, a handsome medical equipment salesman, is the man of her dreams, Tristan to her Isolde. They declare undying love. They marry.

Five years later, the date of the novel, 2011, she finds out he’s cheating on her with a colleague in his office, Amber Holloway. When confronted with evidence, Andy tells Ophelia he’s moving out to live with Amber whom he adores and intends to marry. Devastated but hopeful that Andy will change his mind, Ophelia starts tracking them, 24/7, falsifies data about Amber that she puts online. She trespasses and finally turns to kidnapping. Her mental state, as well as physical appearance, deteriorate. Andy’s abandonment mirrors an earlier one when Ophelia was eight and her beloved mother, without warning, ran off with Bob, the owner of a Cadillac dealership. Ophelia’s incantatory repetition and comingling of both abandonments, at times comically sardonic and recounted in emotionless, somewhat stilted prose, reveal Ophelia to be analytical but emotionally distancing. Like Poe’s monomaniacal protagonists, she’s capable of logical sequencing and forming elaborate plots, but devoid of feeling that turns on spontaneity. She does, however, possess poetic gifts. Describing wondrous lovemaking in a glen with Andy, she recalls “the sentinel pines, the clearing, the chafing grass. It is burned into my psyche, indelible, like the moment before Mother left, the piercing blue sky, the clack of the screen door, before the world shifted irreparably, thrown off its axis.” A few years later, her father, depressed even before his wife ran off, finally pulls the trigger on the shotgun he kept putting in his mouth. Ophelia is left to fend for herself.

The novel raises questions about diagnoses of mental disorders, possible treatment, and the appropriateness of incarceration. Ophelia is clearly aware of what she is doing to Amber. The novel’s title “The Vixen Amber Holloway” is an expression of the force of her obsession. “Vixen” is not a modern word; Ophelia is not a modern person. She knows where Dante would put Amber. Able to function in the real world, Ophelia no doubt owes part of her dissociation from reality to nature, but severely maimed by the sudden withdrawal of love by her mother, and then by Andy, she coolly creates a hell for Amber. Dante would understand. But what does society do with someone like Ophelia?

I’m jb

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.