Six Degrees Of Alienation

Elizabeth Benedict's new novel, "Almost," has a wonderfully blithe, carefree first sentence: "I have this boyfriend who comes to visit me--it's mostly a sex thing." That's also the last blithe, carefree sentence in the novel, incidentally. It's the last time our narrator, a middle-aged writer and recovering alcoholic named Sophy Chase, will ever believe that anything between two people can be simple--or even that anything can be between just two people. Early in "Almost," Sophy and her married lover are busily having their great sex ("The current surged through me and flooded my brain, and I thought, What would I give up for this? My first edition of 'To the Lighthouse'? My twelve Billie Holiday CDs? A husband who used to tell me how sweet it was to see my sheepskin slippers next to his on the floor of the closet?") when the phone rings. It's the police, informing Sophy that her depressed husband, Will, whom she'd finally walked out on a few months earlier, has been found dead in his bedroom on Swansea Island, off Massachusetts. Will died in his sleep. Heart attack? Suicide, more likely. Sophy returns to Swansea and to all the pain and complications she believed she'd buried--a recovering alcoholic heading literally and figuratively back to the bar.

I've never read Benedict before--she most recently published "Safe Conduct" and "The Joy of Writing Sex" --but "Almost" is the most engrossing novel I've come across in a long time. It's about grief and love, about figuring out who your friends really are and what, if anything, you owe everybody else. Once on Swansea, Sophy gets tangled up not just in her own pain but in other people's as well. She reels when her lover's daughter disappears. She reels again when a celebrity-lawyer friend sets off a scandal. She tries desperately to get a grip on something, anything. Sophy is an intriguing creation: smart, loving, combative, self-loathing. "Almost" has a harried plot. Still, the book is funny, harrowing and just a little messy. I don't know what to compare it to--except life.