The hopes, dreams, and expectations of marriage: How often do romantic abstractions fall victim to the tricky realities forced on a couple living together day in and day out, dealing with everyday pressures, unexpected disappointments, and devastating heartache?
Evanston resident Lynn Sloan explores the trajectory of relationships in Principles of Navigation, a tender, thoughtful story of a couple whose once happy marriage dissolves amidst the stress of infertility and infidelity—and unmet expectations.
Set in Indiana, Principles of Navigation focuses on Alice and Rolly Becotte, a couple whose once-loving marriage is unraveling. Alice, a small-town reporter, longs desperately for a child, which she believes will somehow complete her and make her whole, filling an indescribable gap. Rolly, a professor in that same small town, wishes he were a better artist, the kind of artist whose work featured prominently in well-known galleries. The kind of artist who didn’t have to teach uninspired students at a nondescript Midwestern college in order to pay the mortgage. A child is not among the things he wishes to create. When we meet them, it’s clear that, although they once were a good team, Alice and Rolly are no longer even playing the same game. Alice is focused on motherhood while Rolly has no desire to list fatherhood among his accomplishments. Their hopes, dreams, and expectations are no longer shared between them, and they both want more—much more than either can give the other.
Sloan, who earned a master’s degree in photography from the Institute of Design, has crafted a visual, evocative story rich in vivid characters and realistic settings. Carefully written with a gentle touch, Principles of Navigation expertly captures the anguish of infertility, the thrill of illicit desire, the shame of infidelity, the anger of heartbreak. We see in these pages different faces of love—between man and woman, between mother and daughter, between friends—and we feel with Sloan’s characters the highs and lows that mark relationships as they ebb and flow through good times and bad.
Infused with so much emotion, it would be easy for the story to devolve into insipid sap, full of saccharine cliché. But Sloan handles the task with ease, expertly capturing (one might even say corralling) a wide range of feelings with grace and subtlety. Dialogue, both spoken and inner, feels real and appropriate, even when characters are lost in their own thoughts as when, for instance, Alice sends Rolly an email that seems to veer into stream-of-consciousness writing: “In these past months,” she writes, “I’ve made a million mistakes. … It’s as if too much of my brain is somewhere else, probably trying to figure out what I want.”
Existential angst is no stranger to fiction, but Sloan handles it deftly and in a way that feels at once fresh and familiar. Principles of Navigation could easily turn in to a hackneyed story of a dysfunctional couple, full of expletive-ridden arguments, tawdry, back-stabbing affairs, or facile “a baby would save our marriage” clichés. But it doesn’t, much to Sloan’s credit.
Not that the novel is without imperfections. Setting the story at the turn of the millennium seems unnecessary; the related discussions of the Y2K fears that were for naught has little bearing on the main thrust of the story. An interesting subplot and minor character, a sullen Virgin Mary-seeing teenager, seems merely a crutch for explaining Alice’s newfound spirituality cum superstition, especially when that character disappears with little explanation.
But in a story so full of emotion, so evocative of place, so rich with interesting characters, these are but minor quibbles. Principles of Navigation is quietly compelling. It is by no means a heart-pounding page-turner, but it is a page-turner nonetheless, a subtle story that gnaws and needles long after the cover is closed.
February 2015, Fomite Press
$15, paperback, 274 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen