Ralph Sassone’s first novel explores the devastating emotional craters of first love, and the bumpy, baffling relations between the generations.
I read the opening pages of Ralph Sassone’s first novel, The Intimates, in a state of resistance. Oh no, I thought, please tell me I’m not reading a novel about an obsessive teenage girl who has a relationship with her high school guidance counselor. But this initial take was a kind of mistaken identity—which is oddly appropriate for what turned out to be a story about two friends coming of age through a series of incidents of mistaken identity and misapprehension.
The teen protagonists of The Intimates are Maize and Robbie—each the product of a failed suburban marriage, each living as best they can beneath the narcissistic burdens placed on them by parents without peers to absorb their own hurts and bewilderments. Sassone is good at portraying what it’s like to live in that kind of family crucible—being the not-really-adult child of a wounded parent who wants more from their child than any kid can give. In alternating chapters, Sassone shows us, in well-chosen, sometimes surprising vignettes, how Maize and Robbie make their way through those heavy, and sometimes hilarious, months before they escape to college campuses.
Maize’s “interview” with a young alumnus of the party-centric safety school she doesn’t want to attend is an admirable set-piece, interweaving an actual case of mistaken identity—her interviewer assumes she’s a classmate who has a broken leg that has kept her from her own appointment—with a brief, devastating portrait of the alum who uses these interview with prospective freshmen to indulge his own arrested yearnings. As her mother’s exhortations to present herself as ambitious (“Don’t be yourself,” she says) echo back at her, Maize allows herself to be seduced, and comes away from the sordid encounter with some inkling of how the rules will be different in life beyond high school and home.
Robbie has a related encounter when he heads to Italy during a college break to meet the father who left years ago, and who now lives in Rome with his trophy girlfriend. Filled with resentment, Robbie stalks the girlfriend, catching her out in what he takes to be a betrayal of his father, which he documents with photographs before the visit. Of course he’s mistaken, a discovery which gives him some needed insight into his own frustrations and feelings of inadequacy.
Maize and Robbie are high school friends who reunite in college and then, in their early twenties, share a tiny Manhattan apartment while working dreadful entry-level jobs. Sassone is equally skillful in portraying the yawning dread of the terrible first job, reporting to an imperious, emotionally eviscerating boss. The portrait of Maize’s employer is vivid and real:
He was as crudely fascinating as a horror movie you were appalled to find entertaining yet couldn’t stop watching anyway. And he had a split personality. If Maize didn’t know André, she’d never have guessed that the short, caustic, potty-mouthed man who criticized her work and brayed at other brokers and routinely denied them access to his listings was the same supple charmer who seduced sellers into giving him their property to handle and wheedled buyers into ponying up far more than they thought a place was worth. It was astonishing how deftly André could switch from one persona to another, between sips of the espresso he sent Maize out to get for him three times a day, and it was more impressive when he had multiple phone calls on hold and he pivoted from Mean Vulgar André to Smooth Cajoling Andre at the push of a button, into his headset, like a psychic channeling different voices during a séance.
Sassone is also good at showing the devastating emotional craters of first love, with its intense, irrational desire and long, immobile dry spells; and at the bumpy, often baffling relations between the generations, as Maize and Robbie interact with their mothers. The later sections revolve around a visit Maize and Robbie—along with Robbie’s boyfriend Daniel, the object of his romantic confusions—make to his mother’s house, to help her prepare for a move to a smaller place. The inventorying and packing stir up all kinds of emotions among the young people, and when Maize finally connects with Robbie’s mother and confides in her about her own stalled life, it’s a relief to feel that at last an adult is able to penetrate a young character’s bubble and offer something like wisdom.
In many ways The Intimates reminded me of another recent novel, Peter Cameron’s charming Someday This Pain May Be Useful to You, which also details the fallibility of a young man from a privileged background as he vacillates between childishness and adulthood. Sassone as yet lacks Cameron’s ability to make his characters resonate—even as they were real and recognizable, neither Maize nor Robbie felt remarkable. The novel’s incidents are invariably well-drawn and lively, its protagonists always sympathetic, yet as a whole The Intimates struggles to rise above its own self-conscious writerliness. Whether you’re engrossed or faintly disappointed by Sassone’s novel may come down to how many novels of this kind you’ve read before, and the expanse of your own progress into maturity.