Huck Fairman takes a look at a declining contemporary American marriage through the lens of a vacation in Greece that is a “let’s give it one more try” getaway. He uses a fascinating plot device, or series of them, by putting this couple at a party, where everyone pretends to have a name of an ancient Greek god or goddess, whose attributes reflect the psychology of his characters. The Greek goddess Athena actually evolved over thousands of years from a tough warrior goddess into a more measured goddess of justice and wisdom, the Parthenos/Promachus of the title. Belle, the American wife, will represent the sterner, more martial side of Athena. Belle’s anger and hopes for a free new life are played off against husband Wren’s more withdrawn idealism and native innocence. The reader realizes fairly quickly that this marriage holds little hope, and that Belle probably harbored none going into the trip, while Wren does. Although each character is defined mostly separately, Fairman succeeds in offering us a lot of the dynamics and declining confidences and the lack of trust in a failing contemporary American marriage. Although Belle’s feminism sometimes seems strident and even fake, her illusions are not.
An opportunity comes Belle’s way at the party, to take a trip around the Greek islands on a private yacht, with three other women and the boat’s owner, a guest at the party; her field and work at home is teaching ancient Greek history, so that Belle sees such a trip as a once in a lifetime opportunity, and one that will not include Wren: the trip will test her independence and her professional passion concurrently. Fairman has her not see or understand that the boat’s owner is flirting with her heavily, which I found a little dubious, but she leaps at the chance without even telling her husband, who has gone for a walk on the beach, where he encounters an even angrier woman. Fairman is very astute about such diffuse anger among contemporary Americans, whose expectations of life have become, perhaps, unrealistic. She departs without telling him where she is going. Wren, at the same party, has had a fascinating discussion with the architect of this magnificent organic house built on the ocean, which lets us see his idealistic side, as well as his hunger for interpersonal connection. Both Belle and Wren are unhappy, if in different ways, and that old headline from women’s magazine from the 50’s, “Can This Marriage be Saved?” is an operative theme.
So Belle takes off on a yacht called The Poseidon, a nice touch on Fairman’s part, but the other guests consist of three other women plus the host and the crew. That Belle never wonders about the oddity of this grouping was also a weakness of the novel, unless her level of self-absorption is so high that she is oblivious to her surroundings. Although her bonding with the other women is a strength of the novel, when the host tries to rape her in her cabin that night, her outrage at this violation causes her inbred anger to spill over. She insists on reporting this crime to local police on the next Greek island, hires a law firm in Athens, learns that other women on the boat have had the same experience, but have settled out of court for money, yet still appear as guests on this boat. Fairman’s ability to show power imbalances between men and women is well delineated, and, in the end, Belle will take the money as well. Thus, the rest of the journey on The Poseidon, a true luxury yacht, becomes a kind of blood money trip, and the women debate demanding the use of the yacht in upcoming summers as part of the host’s punishment. All this weakens Belle’s case, as she continues to appear to be predatory herself.
Meanwhile, upon returning to Athens to a now empty hotel room, Wren decides to travel a bit around the islands on his own before his plane departs for America, where the parents were supposed to meet their twin sons, and Wren understands that Belle will not be there. Her defaulting of meeting her own children does not further endear her to us. But in possibly the strongest section of the novel, Wren (named for architect Christopher Wren) is driven to an island where he meets a woman who seems part real and part spirit, very much reminding us of Odysseus’ travels and travails through these same islands thousands of years ago. The woman “reads” his unhappiness, and urges him to look up another woman in Athens for some kind of “treatment”. That Wren follows through is indicative of the beginning of his own emotional breakthrough and reawakening. Messena, the woman in Athens, teaches him the importance of touching and being touched, although no sexual acts will occur, while these two wounded people, Wren and Messena, begin to fall in love, which Fairman presents as a combination of empathic conversation and physical touching. His encounters with these two women are exceptionally beautiful, as both represent body, mind and spirit, a touch of the mystery inherent in those Greek islands. Wren’s reawakening has begun, while Belle’s journey represents a further devolution into more anger, except for her bonding with her women passengers on the boat.
When both return, separately, to their house in America, it is clear that their marriage is over. Wren will be hired to design and build a series of houses and out buildings for a rich New York client, whose girlfriend helps bring out Wren’s creativity, but who will come onto him, and he will reject her advances. It is clear that Wren’s basic innocence and decency are traits that keep attracting women, although he does not entirely understand his appeal, which makes him an exceptionally winning contemporary American male character. Messena will have liberated him, and although Belle may or may not write a book about those islands, to enhance her career, and though she hopes to re-meet these women in the future, if we were to lay bets on which one has the likelier chance of finding a measure of contentment in the future, my money’s on Wren.
All of the psychodynamics take place against magnificent settings, and Fairman writes in a prose that is remarkably like poetry. The novel would make a superior play, partly because Fairman’s language is both theatrical, rhythmic and cadenced; various pieces of action could be blocked into acts of a play, where, I believe, the language would have its greatest impact. The two sides of Athena, as mentioned above, are represented by Belle and by Messena, and Fairman manages these metaphors with grace and high intelligence. The novel, in ways, seems as if it might have been written centuries ago, and the characters might even have been Greek gods and goddesses, or their puppets, as in so much Greek tragedy. Athena is a fascinating novel, unlike any I have read this year, and its mostly timeless themes are astutely rendered: Fairman is a romantic at heart, and his novel is a plea for the possibility of love emerging at any age. Its similarities to The Odyssey are plentiful—the other three women on the boat could easily become a Greek chorus, for example—and Fairman makes the issues he raises as contemporary as American feminism, and is ancient as the Greek myths and gods and goddesses, whose characteristics underlie the entire novel.