Book Review: I Regret Everything
By JESSE KORNBLUTH | Published: Feb 09, 2015 | Category: Fiction
Readers who have dropped in for even a few weeks know that my idea of a love story is The Queen’s Gambit, a novel about a young chess genius who’s allergic to love. And my idea of “must see” TV is Borgen, a 3-season, 30-hour series — in Danish — nominally about Denmark’s first female prime minister and her political struggles. So when I say that “I Regret Everything” is the best love story I’ve read in years, you know I’m not talking about some chick-lit romance.
Seth Greenland, the author of this novel, also wrote Shining City, a novel about a failing Los Angeles businessman who inherits his brother’s prostitution ring. It’s funny and smart, and my review begins with this: “I have, at long last, read a contemporary novel I wish I’d written.”
I can say the same about his new book, “I Regret Everything.” It’s just my kind of novel, a brisk 250 pages and streamlined — as Greenland says, “a compact story about two characters who fall in love.”
For those who thought the TV series “The Affair” was all that, “I Regret Everything” has a similar format: alternating first person accounts. But not the stupid he said/she said of that TV series. This is much deeper: two characters of great depth and complexity, characters who become real to the reader.
Real and funny and, because real and funny is always the precursor in a love story to bad shit, powerful and heartbreaking and, we hope hope hope, triumphant at the end. I’m not going to say much about the story, because one of the pleasures of good fiction is that you don’t see what’s coming next even if the writer has sprinkled breadcrumbs along the way. And Greenland, who was a writer-producer on the exceedingly well-plotted HBO series, “Big Love,” knows how to set up surprises with the best of them. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
So let just introduce the characters and their situation.
Jeremy Best is a 33-year-old lawyer. He works in a Manhattan firm, where his specialty could not be more boring: trusts and estates. What’s interesting about him? Under the name Jinx Bell, he’s a published poet, on his way to finishing a book. That’s a secret — his colleagues and employers have no idea. (“Imagine having thousands of gold coins hidden in a safe. I was rich and the world none the wiser.”) Brave on the page, a coward in life, risk averse and careful in the extreme. In relationships, he’s “a master of the unreturned phone call, the forgotten birthday, the middle-distance stare.”
Spaulding Samuelson is 19. Her father is the managing partner of the firm that employs Jeremy. She’s attractive, if by “attractive” you mean “a relatively pretty girl whose false smile could pass for real in low light.” That self-description should alert you: she is whip smart, great with a glib line and troubled. How troubled? She recently did a month in a mental hospital.
Spaulding wanders into Jeremy’s office. They banter. She surprises him with a fact — she’s read his poem in the Paris Review. And then the would-be writer leaves. Lust at first sight? Please, this is fiction, not “Fifty Shades.”
Lonely. Damaged. Needy. Scared. I recognize those as motivations, because they drove my life for decades. If they are familiar to you as well, you may be uncommonly interested in these characters, even though their lives couldn’t be more different from yours. And although improbable events occur along the way, you’ll buy them, because what is a love story if not improbable?
I spoil the experience of reading “I Regret Everything” if I say much more, but I want to share — or over-share — how the book affected me. I read it in one gulp on a plane to California. The next day my mother and I were having lunch in the garden of an undistinguished bar/restaurant in Encinitas. Our waitress was young, in her 20s. We spoke briefly, but there was something about her.
As we were leaving, she was at the waitress station, tapping orders into a computer. I went over to her, on auto-pilot. “We’re never going to see one another again in this life,” I said, “but I feel I should tell you that I think you have great qualities and you are, in the best sense of the word, adorable, and you should hold that thought.” And she got it. It was a perfect moment.
I talk to strangers. Not like this, never like this. But I was under the spell of the book and the fierce message at its core — “Never give in” — and its acute sense of the velocity of time. Days later, I’m still touched, inspired and wounded by “I Regret Everything.” Consider yourselves warned.