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"My favorite book of 2010": Austin Wright's Tony & Susan

The Times of London, May 2010

My favorite novel of 2010 would have been my favorite novel of 1993 — if only I had known about it. At the time, Saul Bellow was not on Twitter but even his lavish quote for Tony & Susan, originally published that year, failed to sell enough copies of the book to keep it in print. So in an unusual eco-feat of arts recycling, Tony & Susan is being republished, giving it a much-deserved second life.

In 1993 I graduated from law school and got married. Two years later I quit law to write fiction, yet my husband did not divorce me for such foolishness. Unfortunately for Edward Sheffield, his wife Susan — this novel’s protagonist — ditches him for Arnold, a married cardiac surgeon, when Edward leaves his legal studies for letters. Post divorce, Susan and Arnold marry. They produce three children. Three days a week Susan teaches English at a community college. Arnold has an affair with his medical secretary. Susan and Arnold soldier on.

Edward sells insurance and remarries, to Stephanie, who sends Susan and Arnold holiday cards.

Twenty years pass. Edward writes to Susan to ask her if she would read the completed manuscript of his novel. Like Wallace Stevens — poet and insurance executive — Edward has kept writing after all.

“How much he had learnt from life and craft. He wanted to show her, let her read and see, judge for herself. She was the best critic he ever had, he said.”

How can Susan resist?

She cannot.

So who’s Tony?

Tony Hastings is an uptight maths professor of a not-famous university who is heading to the summer house in Maine with his wife, Laura, and their daughter, Helen. Tony is the protagonist of Nocturnal Animals, which lies within the novel Tony & Susan. Edward’s narrative premise: on an all-night drive to Maine the Hastings family is taken off the road by thugs who kidnap Laura and Helen, leaving Tony alone.

To the English professor Susan’s relief, Nocturnal Animals is a well-written psychological thriller. She can’t stop reading and neither can we.

A novel can be read for many reasons:

Plot: what happens next?

Characterisation: why does she do that?

Insight: how does life work?

As readers, we are invited guests — and voyeurs. Vicariously, we invest ourselves with the character because we want to know what will happen to us; how we would react; and how we can interpret life. Reading is at once a passive experience of reception and an active experience of sympathy: one reason why readers balk at unlikeable characters. A book can also entertain, offer escape or edify. A great novel is the total package, and Tony & Susan delivers on all counts.

Susan is a sympathetic character, and even when she leaves her first husband, we get it. She is a competent mother, professor and wife. At 49, she now wears glasses and is chubbier than when she first married Edward. “Arnold says she looks like a Scandinavian skier.” We know Susan; she is your pleasant neighbour. Above all, she is, like us, a reader — which makes sense because Tony & Susan is ultimately an absorbing exploration of the act of reading.

When evil alters Tony’s life indelibly, he is forced to ask himself what it means to be a civilised person. He has always “suspected that being civilised concealed a great weakness”, but now, when civilisation is destroyed, will Tony roll up his sleeves and deal with the detritus of his life? Will a piano-playing, “courtly” maths professor — the son of a college dean and poet — take vengeance?

The best writers don’t get in the way of a good story — the better the tale, the more masterful the sleight of hand. Dr Austin Wright, author of seven novels and four books of literary criticism, points to Edward as the author and Susan as the reader, but it is the author Wright who fully engages us readers with his dexterous storytelling. Tony & Susan is a very smart book, but it is also a thrilling narrative about reading, marriage, crises and revenge.

Wright died in 2003 at the age of 80; in 2010 Tony & Susan returns to print as his stunning literary legacy.

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