BookBrowse Reviews Mercury by Margot Livesey

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by Margot Livesey

Mercury by Margot Livesey X
Mercury by Margot Livesey
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2016, 336 pages

    Jun 2017, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Gary Presley
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About this Book



A tense psychological drama and a taut emotional thriller exploring love and obsession.

Margot Livesey explores the moneyed suburbs of Boston and creates a modern morality tale chronicling the melancholic implosion of a marriage in her novel, Mercury.

Dr. Donald Stevenson is a native Scot raised in the U.S. After doing his medical training in Scotland he returns to the States when his beloved father develops Parkinson's Disease, and marries Viv, a Michigan girl turned successful financial trader for a Boston branch of a Wall Street firm. Soon though, Donald gives up ophthalmology surgery and opens a suburban optometry business, and Viv, feeling burned out at work, wants to reconnect with her youthful passion for horses and riding, and takes a job running a stable with a friend. Here is a minor flaw for some readers. Money being the fuel of modern life, it's not made fully clear why Donald might give up ophthalmology surgery for optometry, with the former providing significantly more income, but it's suggested more free time to help his father is the reason.

As with most literary fiction, Livesey's novel is an exploration of character, beginning with the almost ironic premise of a protagonist whose specialty is eyes – he's an ophthalmologist, after all – but who fails to see his marriage is imploding. And as with most literary fiction, character is revealed by action, or inaction.

A thoroughbred horse called Mercury upsets the delicate balancing act that is the Stevensons' marriage. Mercury becomes, in fact, the "other man" fracturing the marital bond. He's a magnificent animal, and Viv begins to believe that riding him in shows will allow her to, at last, become the hero of her youthful dreams – an award-winning rider. Then her obsession causes her to make a mistake that destroys her world.

Minor characters are stock players from the well-to-do suburban playbook. Donald's best friend is Jack, a popular private school teacher who went blind as an adult, another bit of minor irony. Viv's long-time best friend, Claudia, an approaching-forty single woman who owns the stable, is trapped in a love affair with a married man. There's Charlie, spoiled rich girl, working as a stable-hand who has her own ambitions for Mercury. And then there's Mercury's owner Hilary, a newcomer to town, who inherited the horse from her late brother, a so-called "stable rat" done in by the drugs he took to stay in riding shape.

The pace flows along sharply, the most affecting portions being Donald's remembered interactions with his ill father, a man who faced his destruction with grace and good humor. And the novel's conflict is real. A solid marriage is first torpedoed by the distractions of illness, causing one partner to be inadvertently shut out, and then sinking because of a partner's different blind obsession. Jealousies are unspoken, and loneliness is unexpressed, as so often happens when a marriage is on autopilot. The Stevensons have two children, both written with distinctive personalities, but each are only sounding boards rather than active characters involved in the storyline.

The crisis that propels the marriage to possible collapse is a surprise, and yet inevitable in hindsight. The reaction to the crisis, which reveals the characters' weaknesses, also seems organic. The dialog is natural, and the narrative flows at a pace in harmony with the events, and the setting and backstory fit perfectly too. There's no neat-and-clean ending here, but rather a conclusion fully post-modern – the betrayals are faced, steps toward some reconciliation are taken, but it's left to the reader to imagine whether lessons are learned and everyone lives happily every after.

In Mercury, Livesey offers a masterful deconstruction of human frailty.

Reviewed by Gary Presley

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2016, and has been updated for the June 2017 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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