What to do when a familiar writer suddenly jumps into a different section of the bookstore? Sloane Crosley, best known as an essayist and humor writer, debuts her first novel this fall. In this case, what you do is examine it from about a dozen different angles, because The Clasp is dense, complex, and nuanced.
Crosley takes on some popular topics in fiction right now, but other elements are uncommon. The three main characters are aging millennials who are almost too old to qualify for the generational label, but their constant phone checks and respective careers (search engine data cruncher, sitcom writer, and assistant to the owner of a found object jewelry company) place them perfectly within a specific milieu. While there are probably many reasons for the current popularity of historical fiction, one reason is that it’s harder to write about young(ish) people now. Who wants to read a thirty page stretch detailing what a character does on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter? At the same time, if you omit these elements of contemporary life, the character feels inauthentic. They might as well never eat food. It’s easier to avoid this problem, placing your characters in another era, than wrestle with it on the page. Crosley balances the issue well, making it clear that some of her characters care far too much about their digital personas without miring the plot in YouTube banalities.
There is, however, a historical context. Events unfolding in our current time reach back to WWII Europe and Belle Epoque France. As in life, the past informs the present. Crosley carefully blends bygone eras into her character’s lives without ever writing a distant flashback. Even third-hand narratives pass through the lips of somebody still living. This is a nice way to draw the interest of readers who snatch up anything with the Eiffel Tower on the cover without beating a literary horse so dead that it’s little more than a pile of bones. To some readers, it may be tiresome that the catalyst for much of the transformation we see in these characters is a trip to France, but everyone can rest easy. Nobody traipses down the Champs Elysees with a dark-eyed stranger, finds a fateful object left behind at a sidewalk cafe by a mysterious figure, or marries Ernest Hemingway.
The Clasp does, however, incorporate another smash hit lit-fic trope. Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace figures heavily both thematically and in the action. The novel takes over a hundred pages to establish this, making it not just another book about a book. It also avoids the pitfall of lionizing a classic author in a way that adds nothing to the story–Crosley peppers the text with facts about de Maupassant that not only make him feel real but also directly relate to the characters’ trajectories, including facts about his syphilis and suicide attempt. She firmly grounds the dreaminess of the French countryside with bar fights and testicle jokes.
Even with all this going for it, The Clasp does occasionally struggle with pacing. For much the novel, the characters have sprezzatura oozing from their eyeballs, and I spent many pages wondering when they’d get all that defensive irony knocked out of them, and how. They’re frequently unlikeable, and I didn’t enjoy spending so much time with them. The slower sections might’ve felt less slow if they weren’t peopled by the deeply annoying. When they get you on their sides, though, and when the humor, chemistry, and abundant detail synch perfectly, it’s hard to put this book down.
The Clasp by Sloane Crosley (Farrar, Straus & Grioux | 9780374124410 | October 6, 2015)