The Short Version: Cheryl is a second wife, living in a rich Connecticut beach community and not quite fitting in with the old money women who surround her. When her stepson Teddy gets kicked out of Dartmouth and shows up in town, she and her husband must try to take care of him – but they can’t even really take care of each other. Meanwhile, the town is quaking under threats both real (few) and imagined (many).
The Review: Just when you think you’ve seen everything that can be done with a genre, someone comes along and surprises you. That’s the way, isn’t it, of culture? Stories never truly die – there’s always a new spin to be had. And while Karolina Waclawiak’s The Invaders isn’t the newest or freshest spin, necessarily, it’s still a fascinating and often unexpected one. I was reminded a little bit of Desperate Housewives – but the first seasons, when the show still retained the promise of the darker side without skewing to the absurd/soapy. (Yes, I watched it and I’ll bet you did too so don’t even try it.)
I’m writing this review sitting in a timeshare in Dennisport, out on Cape Cod so I’m in a spot where I’m thinking very consciously of waterfront communities of the Northeast and how strange they all are. Cape Cod is different from spots on the Long Island sound, of course – just like spots on Long Island itself are different from the spots on the Connecticut coast – but there are certain things that are true everywhere: perhaps first among them being that rich people are often overwhelming. Everybody in this book (or at least everyone who has money and doesn’t think consciously about their wealth, meaning just about everybody except the two narrators) is working on something: their homes, their bodies, their affairs. They want more; they want to rule things, to own things, to control things. They, who are probably (not definitely but preeeeetty probably) white, want to hold off the advances of those who would take what they have – those almost certainly not-white individuals who might start out as fishermen on the beach but who will, it’s almost certain, move into the streets and publicly urinate AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE?!
I mean, that sort of behavior seems ridiculous, right? And Waclawiak is absolutely shining a spotlight on these behaviors and encouraging that scoffing half-laugh of “Really? They really believe this?” but she’s also reminding the reader that you can’t laugh because this shit is real. Lori’s desire to erect what is essentially a wall around her property (Cheryl, at one point, references a moat as the next step) to keep out everyone… I bet you dollars to donuts that this character, if she were real, would not only be a Trump supporter but a bulging eyes, foaming mouth rabid one. Waclawiak’s great success here is capturing the insidious violence of the wealthy – both the physical violence, which pops up periodically, and the more nebulous societal violence, which includes the emotional and spiritual and just-plain-oblivious kinds. When you have money, when you think you can just buy and spend to get what you want, it’s pretty easy to believe that you should get what it is you want and that anyone in the way of such things can be removed just as easily.
The book opens with one of these removals: Cheryl, having shown up for the summer fashion show, is told that she no longer needs to participate. It’s the sort of catty, bitchy violence perpetrated by women on other women that you’d expect from these bronzed, plastic housewives – they don’t like Cheryl and so they’re going out of their way to make sure she feels her ostracisation very keenly. Cheryl is an outsider of sorts, having the dubious distinction of second-wife and having come from poverty as opposed to born-and-bred wealth, but she’s been taken over by the world she’s come to live in. She’s not an outsider, is the thing: she’s just as paranoid about the fishermen, about what she’ll do if her husband leaves her, and so on as anybody else in the novel. But she’s newer to these concerns than everybody else and so she doesn’t get to be a part of the club. It’s a strange tension, this idea of not-quite-outsider, that shouldn’t quite work but does; we, the reader, get to not only see the community from the perspective of someone who doesn’t quite fit in… but we also get to, as the true observer, see that this someone does fit in. We’re privileged by the broader scope of our view and it makes some of the sharper moments of hopelessness land harder than they might otherwise.
The other narrator in the book, Teddy, fits a similar mold. He’s young and wasteful, as are so many children of the rich (I’d admittedly argue a higher proportion in literature than in reality), because he doesn’t know really how to be any other way. But his storyline meanders a little more, veering towards the washed-up, drugged-out blankness of early Bret Easton Ellis or even something like Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen without ever quite committing to the nihilism of the former or the indie-comedy of the latter. Teddy is really the true outsider of the novel, despite having been born into money, but he also remains somewhat outside the story that Waclawiak seems to want to tell. His car accident, for example, seems arbitrary in its “let’s give him something to have to physically deal with now” plot-device-y-ness – but, by the same token, his book-long near-flirtation with one of the community’s wives has the inklings of being a terrific riff on The Graduate or Adore but just never quite commits. I saw a whole other novel peeking out of the covers of Teddy’s half of the book and, at times, wished I could’ve slid sideways into that one more completely before slipping back to Cheryl’s.
As for the end, I won’t say much except that there’s some pretty obvious symbolism and an admittedly surprising conclusion. But it all does feel less like a conclusion and more like an ending, if that makes sense. The issues that Waclawiak has been dredging up here – the problems of wealth, conservativism, loss-of-love, privilege, etc – aren’t totally resolved by the ending or even really addressed with anything other than a flat destruction. This isn’t a problem, as flat destruction feels at times like a great means of causing that revolution people seem to be hot on these days, but it does mean that the novel loses some of its potential intellectual heft. Yes, the planet may someday wipe all of our beachfronts from the scene – but then people will still build new beachfronts. I wanted it to go deeper into the rot instead of just wiping it all away.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. A sharp, quick read exploring the pervasive rot of a wealthy Connecticut beachside community. Yes, as many have said, it’s a book full of white people problems – but if that’s your read on the book, you’re missing the point. Waclawiak isn’t just updating folks like John Cheever, she’s trying to explore how the increasingly rampant inequality in this country has changed those traditional wealth vs. happiness narratives. If she doesn’t quite get all the way there, I’m still impressed by how spiky the book was and how well she depicts the sorts of people who might’ve otherwise come off as caricatures. They’re laughable, don’t get me wrong – but they’re all far too real in their laughableness to be anything but visions of the real. And if you don’t believe me, just take a look outside my window right now.