Book Review: Layover

Madeleine Kingsley reviews Lisa Zeidner's 'Layover', which explores grief expressed as wild sexual abandon


Claire Newbold is a ghost in her own life. Her heart is ruinously wrung, its four chambers wracked by grief. She’s lost her small son, an only child, in a car crash. The spouse who could have been her source of healing — cardiothoracic surgeon Ken — has slept with a colleague to assuage his own pain. So, the heroine of Layover, Lisa Zeidner’s wry, whip-smart novel checks out of her everyday life and goes out on the lam, seeking sex to connect with strangers, sneaking into hotel rooms she’s not paid for, trying on assorted identities for size. If the book of Job had starred an unfettered, ferocious contemporary woman, an Erica Jong on acid, it would be Claire.

Zeidner, a professor of creative writing at Rutgers University, has certainly not won her critical acclaim from lullaby literature.

Outrageous yet sometimes tender tragi-comedy is her forte — a previous novel, Love Bomb, features an armed feminist gate-crashing a wedding for hostages. Zeidner takes fiction’s time-honoured themes of love, loss and the search for consolation and shakes them by the shoulders till they rattle. Here, grief is not a state for weeping acceptance. It is wild, clamorous and coloured by a deeply suppressed, off-kilter fury that Claire’s benevolent psychiatrist has probed but not yet fully processed.

She is, emotionally, way beyond fear: “After the accident I… could walk on nails, eat fire, explode or be garrotted — nothing would ever hurt as much again.”

A once successful medical sales rep, Claire ignores fixed appointments, fails to pick up her 31 work-related phone messages. In her raw, overstrung state, she fancies she can see below the surface and into “the grim and shining truth” of people.

Beneath the quest for a recovered self, there’s the anguished question of whether her son really died on impact, or if he suffered an underlying heart condition that could have killed him any time. Claire may not weep, but her breasts leak milk … could she be pregnant at 41 or perhaps seriously sick?

Lonely and seeking to be anything but, Claire beds 18-year-old Zach — all zits and muscle — a stranger swimming laps in her hotel pool. She blags an invitation to join him and his sad, divorced mother for a top-dollar dinner. And then this Moll Flanders of bereaved motherhood (with cancelled credit card) makes a move on Zach’s lawyer father.

Her odyssey (the sex scenes are wonderfully wrought) is punctuated by calls from the husband, the husband’s lover, the super shrink and MDs offering help. Claire recognises that “people’s identities are constructed like birds’ nests… frantic and fragile. Part of the time they manage to hold together.” Layover is all wit and perception. Zeidner’s is a class act.

Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer

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