Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky

February 8, 2011

Marie is bad. The interesting question is what makes her bad. She is recently released from prison. She was incarcerated for incredibly bad judgment. She fell for a criminal who fancied himself Clyde. Her version is revealing of what makes her both charming and bad:

My boyfriend robbed a bank. A small one. In the suburbs. Juan Jose. He was only twenty-two years old. He was this perfect boy. Like a painting. I wasn’t much older, twenty-four. I didn’t know he was going to rob a bank. I knew almost nothing about him, really. I had met him in a bar, the week before. He showed up in the middle of the night at my door. Scared. Bleeding. I didn’t even think about it. He needed me. We went to Mexico. Later, after the police found us, I went to jail. I didn’t regret it. I don’t.

The other thing that makes Marie charming is her love for Cailtin, the girl she nannies as her first job out of prison. Caitlin is the daughter of Ellen, Marie’s childhood acquaintance. Ellen is from a privileged background, Marie is not. Ellen’s mother felt sorry for Marie, so she took every opportunity to invite Marie over to the house and to foster a friendship between Ellen and Marie. The girls are not, it turns out, a good match. Ellen has her mother’s sense of nobless oblige, however, so Ellen gives Marie her first post-prison position.

As the quote above demonstrates, Marie often does not carefully deliberate over a decision and its consequences before acting. To counterbalance this impetuousness, she rarely feels remorse. (“Marie did not believe in regret.”) The quality is one of her more endearing traits.

Ellen should have known better. In high school, Marie slept with Ellen’s boyfriend. The criminal escapade, while not indicative of maliciousness, should make a person pause to place their child’s well-being in the hands of Marie. Marie is aware of all this and, thus, feels no guilt in giving Ellen her comeuppance when things predictably turn sour between them.

The movie-critic author describes Bad Marie as her attempt to write a French movie. I think that is probably as accurate a description of the feel of the novel as any. The book could easily be converted into a movie. Imagery is extremely important to the novel and its success. The thread of the story is populated by a number of elegant visual pearls. Despite the absence of lovable characters (excepting Caitlin), despite Marie being bad, she matters. Her decisions, as poor as they are, have import.

This novel is not unlike Brooklyn in that the central character is frustrating. Marie is a bit more actively bad than Toibin’s Eilis, but neither make good decisions. Marie is almost the antithesis of Eilis. Where Eilis is passive, Marie is active. Where Eilis allows others to manipulate her, Marie more often manipulates those around her. At least, she acts. She fills with her presence the novel, her surroundings, New York, Paris.

The meat of the novel is the character study of Marie. Dermansky seems to get her right. Her decisions, destined to break hearts and ruin lives in surprising ways, flow naturally from her attributes and flaws. Marie is a liberating alter ego for those who want to fly to foreign lands on a moment’s notice. There is a freshness to entering the mind of someone with so little regard for consequences, so little self-awareness, so much engagement with the moment. And, yet, everything about her feels tragic. A person cannot successfully live as Marie lives.

Because she cannot seem to learn from the past or project into the future, Marie is able to deny that a disastrous decision can only lead to bad things. It is this, rather than a malicious nature, that makes Marie bad. She assumes that life is more chaotic than it actually is, that the near future is as unpredictable as next year’s weather. Societal rules are made for the Maries of the world. They need rules and they need to follow them, because they are so incredibly bad at making decisions on their own. Marie’s simple spontaneity is a poor way to live, but a fine way to carry a novel.

Bad Marie has to be a long shot to win the Tournament of Books, but the odds are good it will please its readers. I would not be surprised to see it upset one of the books with more reputation and less verve.