Big Swiss by Jen Beagin review


Two hours north of New York City lies a town that was once an auspiciously positioned port, one that grew until it was notorious for its crime, then shrank again, retaining its attractiveness to outsiders. Call it a college town with no college or a spot for domestic expats, it makes sense that Greta, the heroine of Jen Beagin’s third novel, “Big Swiss,” would wind up in Hudson. The 45-year-old woman, on the run from her own grief, spends her time hanging out in a drafty farmhouse with her acquaintance Sabine and her terrier Piñon, lightly mocking the town’s wellness culture — imported, it seems, by exhausted millennials and retired yogis — and working as a transcriptionist for a sex therapist named Om.

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It also makes sense that Greta jumped forth from the mind of Beagin, whose debut novel, “Pretend I’m Dead,” follows a cleaning woman named Mona, who, in the wake of a bad affair, winds up in Taos, N.M. Like Mona, Greta copes with her past with zany jokes; also like Mona, she’s a working-class character navigating a social world that touts an affected, if also sometimes affecting, back-to-the-earth ethos. Of a man she meets in town, Greta observes wryly: “He was a baker but called himself a maker.”

As an outsider, Greta is an ideal hire for Om, who values discretion in this small, gossipy town. But transcribing his sessions starts to make her feel listless, even irritated; hearing about petty domestic disputes related in wellness-speak, she begins “to think that if everyone was traumatized, maybe nobody was, including her.” Here, Beagin’s novel resists the neat logic of the lately criticized “trauma plot”; although Greta has suffered a good deal — her mother killed herself while Greta was away at camp — this suffering doesn’t explain away Greta’s character. In fact, it’s only the beginning.

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Enter the titular Big Swiss, a steady voice for Greta to transcribe. The woman (whose name is Flavia; the nickname is Greta’s) is tall, young and married, and due to her upbringing in a cult prizing authenticity, she speaks bluntly and without self-pity about her own traumatic history. Yes, she was violently attacked, her face rearranged by a man who’s now in jail. Yes, she had made the choice to go home with him. No, she hasn’t been able to orgasm since — or before, for that matter. Yes, she’d like to learn to try. No, she can’t believe that Om, a sex therapist, doesn’t know what endometriosis is. Yes, as a woman and a gynecologist, she finds that misogynistic; chanting and swaying does not have the power to cure a medical issue.

“Truth-telling,” Greta observes, “a bizarre choice.” Unsure whether she wants Big Swiss or wants to be her, Greta regardless becomes obsessed. Around the time she learns that Big Swiss’s attacker will soon be released from prison, Greta concocts a plan to meet the woman at a dog park, and an affair quickly progresses. As their passion unfurls, Greta can’t bring herself to tell Big Swiss about her identity as the town’s resident secret-keeper. And it turns out Big Swiss’s gruffness isn’t quite the sign of candor Greta believed it to be; as she transcribes her lover’s descriptions of their dalliances, and hears the same stories retold, Greta reflects, “stories change depending on the audience.”

It’s a nice reminder in a gossip-fueled, appearance-forward world — Hudson, or any place online, say. Though the book is bogged down by cultural references and silly wordplay (Greta quips that she once mistook talk of Lyme disease with something to do with citrus, and at several points, she mishears Om’s use of his gong for something more salacious), the dissonances between Greta’s transcribed sessions and her lived life make for a fun read with the quick pace of a Nell Zink novel.

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What begins as a jokey, almost cynical critique, one that might sound right in the mouth of Eleanor Shellstrop from “The Good Place,” veers for a while into thriller terrain, and winds up a kind of delayed coming-of-age story about a woman who has relied on her wits and her tragic upbringing to deflect real feeling. That Greta begins healing in a town full of alleged healers is part of the book’s irony — and its charm.

Maddie Crum is a writer and editor in New York.

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