What girl hasn’t wanted the bad boy, the one she knows is no good for her but can’t quite forget?
At age 19, Annie Black is obsessed with a charming young artist, a carefree Irishman in London “set on extracting every ounce of pleasure for himself before the game was up.” Annie’s first encounter with Patrick Ardghal at a swanky cocktail party yields a visceral response: “the shock of him under my ribs. His dark suit and open collar.” But in A Small Indiscretion, Jan Ellison’s debut novel, this youthful infatuation becomes cause for remorse and reckoning.
Alternating between 1989 London and 2012 San Francisco, A Small Indiscretion investigates the dark consequences of lust and desire, as well as the pain of a long marriage and the obligations of motherhood. Annie Black is a flawed heroine whose impulses we may distrust, but whose voice is compelling, drawing us in with her ruminating self-awareness and lively observations of those around her:
It was so undignified and unnecessary, the way married people behaved. The indiscriminate airing of grievances, the incessant flinging of blame and complaint. Of course, I had no idea back then what a marriage required. How the resentments and oversights and misunderstandings could pile up, sometimes moving ordinary kindness beyond reach.
With unabashed naivete and a weakness for free pints at the pub, Annie finds herself entangled in not one but two interlocking love triangles, starting with a mostly-chaste affair with her boss, the tall, sorrowful Malcolm Church, a married man twice her age. Annie has escaped to London from her dead-end hometown, Pine Crest, “a wasted place at the lip of Los Angeles, slung above the valley’s miasmic flats.”
As a California native and a Bay Area resident, Ellison renders the California landscape with stunning clarity: “the hospital inside its immaculate suburbia—that sunlit peninsula pressed between the green bay and a bank of hills the color of straw.” Ellison’s descriptions of foggy London and rich English food resonate in a different way, revealing Annie Black’s sensuality and the pleasure she takes in a re-invented life: “I loved those meals, the bounty and efficiency of them, the thick gravies, the custards and puddings and soft, fat rolls.”
A Small Indiscretion has the gift of hindsight. The forty-something Annie who narrates the novel is no longer an infatuated ingénue but a married mother of three, a successful designer who owns a boutique lighting shop in Noe Valley, San Francisco. From the outside, Annie’s life appears idyllic. But an anonymous photograph arrives in the mail one June morning, awakening a buried longing and sparking a sequence of events that threatens everything she holds dear. Soon after, a beautiful young woman appears and asks for a job. Emme is sultry and loose-limbed and speaks with a faint accent, wearing Bohemian garb like a model in a Free People catalog: headscarves in her long, blonde hair, combat boots on her long, thin legs. Without suspicion, Annie welcomes the mysterious Emme into the loft above her lighting store and into her family’s lives. It’s a clouded decision she’ll live to regret.
The art and design of lighting functions as more than just a career in the novel. Lighting becomes a subtle metaphor for clear-seeing, which eludes Annie until the very end, even though she can craft a distinctive “arc lamp” out of a fallen pine branch and faceted diamond bulbs suspended on gold wires. Webster’s defines an indiscretion as “an act or remark that shows a lack of good judgment.” Annie’s alcohol-fueled passions in Europe certainly reveal a youthful imprudence that borders on ignorance. But the word’s etymology traces back to the Late Latin indiscretionem— “lack of discernment.” Ultimately A Small Indiscretion is a book about discerning the truth, seeing into the depths of things, making meaning out of a life over time.
Ellison won the O. Henry prize for the first short story she ever published. She writes gracefully, with moments of startling insight: “But what you can stand, for the duration, is not the same as what you want right now.” Her first novel is an emotional thriller, skillfully plotted in taut, visual scenes. The stakes are high from the start: Annie’s oldest son Robbie has been found in a car accident and lies deep in a coma. Only weeks later, Annie’s doctor husband Jonathan leaves her after 23 years to move to Gold Hill, a pristine pocket of California suburbia.
In the midst of this crisis, Annie remains a devoted mother who believes that “faith claws its way back.” She pours through a secret hatbox of photos, letters and mementos, working backwards through time, trying to explain her actions to her imperiled child. The story sometimes gets bogged down in the muddy confines of the second-person singular, and the direct address to Robbie can seem forced and confusing. But as Ellison pulls the thread that unravels the past, she weaves a rich tapestry of memory and desire, secrets and omissions, and exposes the knotted wages of love.
“The idea of a secret that will be revealed always results in one of two scenarios: death and destruction, or self-discovery and recovery beyond our wildest dreams of unification. And in the greatest of sagas, both at the same time,” writes the poet Mary Ruefle in her essay “On Secrets.” A Small Indiscretion resolves in an astonishing plot twist that offers both destruction and self-discovery. As the family discerns all that has been kept hidden, there is unbearable pain and then the relief that comes with clear-seeing.