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Onyx reviews: Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

What would Alfred Hitchcock think of Mr. Peanut? The director and his works are obviously influences on Adam Ross. Ross's protagonists met at a university class on Hitchcock's films. Minor characters in the novel share names with characters from his films (occasionally anagrammed). Hitchcock's attitudes toward women and marriage are simpatico with those in this novel. An entire thesis could be written on the connections between Hitchcock and Mr. Peanut

And yet Hitchcock would likely have been disappointed by the book, because Ross lets gimmickry get in the way of a coherent, unified story. Ross squanders a promising premise—David Pepin, a highly successful computer game programmer, who fantasizes about the myriad ways his wife might die (including by his own hand), falls under suspicion when his wife really does die. Her death might be murder or suicide.

David writes down his fantasies, hiding the fact that he's working on a novel from his wife—just one of many secrets in their marriage. Alice, who teaches troubled children, ballooned to nearly 300 pounds since they met. David doesn't mind, but she's depressed about her condition, and her yoyo dieting and unstable moods frustrate him. Their relationship reaches a crisis after she miscarries on a flight to Hawaii. Instead of returning to the mainland, she insists on going on a hazardous mountainside adventure trek that is beyond her abilities, an outing that could easily have fulfilled David's death fantasies. 

After they return home, Alice disappears for months, during which time David engages in an affair while professing to miss his wife. He ultimately hires a bizarre private investigator named Mobius, to whom he idly mentions his murder fantasies. The detective's name calls to mind M.C. Escher, the Dutch artist admired by David whose work often contained impossible images and intricate mosaics composed of common objects. 

When Alice returns, she's a new person. A much smaller person. David doesn't understand the change in Alice's attitude, but he's desperate to salvage their marriage. He wants to get away with her and start over, picking up on a request Alice made before she left. She mocks him for considering her proposal only when it's convenient to him. 

David claims that Alice ate the fatal peanuts by herself, that his injuries occurred while trying to save her. The two detectives assigned to the case have their own marital issues. Detective Hastroll was happy until his wife took to bed one day and stayed there for five months. She refused to tell him why as he tended to her every need, but he grew frustrated with her passive aggressive taunting. "You still don't get it," she told him every time he thought he was on the verge of a break­through. Hastroll believes David murdered his wife. He had his own fantasies about dispatching his wife in a manner similar to the one depicted by his namesake in Rear Window.

The other detective, inexplicably, is Dr. Sam Sheppard, who was found guilty of murder in 1954. He claimed a home invader killed his wife while she slept. His conviction was overturned years later, and he was subsequently acquitted in 1966. His case may have inspired the TV series The Fugitive. Perhaps because of his experience (though the time frame is badly off—he should be nearly 90 at the time of Alice Pepin's death), Sheppard thinks David is innocent.

Ross implies that there's a kind of extrasensory communication between spouses, yet he suggests that spouses are pathologically incapable of saying things that might rectify critical misunderstandings in marriages. He also denies any middle ground between a happy marriage and an unhappy one. The only solution to the latter that his male characters come up with is homicide. None consider couples therapy or divorce. It's feast or famine. Not every heart is criminal, though, and every marriage isn't a long, slow double homicide.

The book's biggest problem (outside of some improbable characters, such as an infinitely helpful airline customer service representative) is the fact that it seems cobbled together out of pieces that don't fit. Though there are thematic connections between the Pepin marriage and the marital issues of Detective Hastroll and Detective (formerly Doctor) Sam Sheppard, these set pieces go on for far too long, presenting the same situations over and over again, with the reader in possession of a few more details each time. The story of Sheppard's wife's murder and Sheppard's infidelities and marital shortcomings, told at Mobius's insistence as quid pro quo for information about his involvement with David, could almost be a book by itself. It's a fascinating pas de deux,, but it takes readers away from the Pepin storyline for too long, as does a  lengthy exposition on Hitchcock's movies and life that is ultimately irrelevant except as a way of restating an already obvious theme. 

David likens marriage to writing a novel: the middle is long and hard. His book shares passages with Ross's novel, and it is entirely possible that they are one and the same—that the events Ross describes are merely David's fantasy. Ross, too, seems to despair at finding a resolution for his book. Pepin's writer's block is symptomatic of Ross's inability to reconcile all of the components of the book into a unified whole.

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