‘The Fainting Room’ by Sarah Pemberton Strong
“Mister, I need a cup of strong coffee with an even stronger shot of bourbon in it. I need a cigarette that doesn’t taste like poison. I need a clue. I need a lot of things that I don’t have.”
What happens when you throw a lonely, blue-haired sixteen-year-old nihilist with a pet iguana, a tattooed former circus-performer cum manicurist, and a wealthy architect into one household for a summer? In Sarah Pemberton Strong’s deft hands, you get one hell of a good read.
Evelyn and Ray Shepard couldn’t be more different. A wealthy architect, Ray oozes sophistication and poise. When he marries Evelyn, a former circus performer who works at a nail salon, Ray’s friends think he’s finally lost his mind. And as hard as she tries, Evelyn can’t make herself fit into his upper crust world. Her soufflés don’t fluff and her conversations fall flat. When the headmistress of the local boarding school asks them to take in Ingrid Slade, a boarder with no place to go for the summer, they agree. Each of them believes that Ingrid may hold the key to keeping their marriage intact. The clueless trio, with their competing needs, will experience a summer that changes each of them immeasurably.
Evelyn hopes that in Ingrid she will find a friend and confidante; the kind of best friend she never had growing up in a traveling circus. Ray hopes that Ingrid will provide a distraction for Evelyn that will allow him to concentrate on the book of architecture he is writing. The fainting room in the Shepards’ manse, so-called for being the room used in Victorian times for women who were having spells, becomes the focal point of the intrigue that surrounds the unlikely trio.
Ingrid is fascinated with the Shepards. She also begins to suspect that beneath the façade, there is a marriage about to crumble. Ingrid takes on the persona of a private investigator—Detective Slade—complete with fedora and top coat–to find the pieces to glue their marriage back together. The further Ingrid digs into their lives, the more secrets she uncovers. Ingrid believes that if she can unearth the secrets and rescue Ray and Evelyn, they will keep her in their lives permanently. Because as her feelings for Ray and Evelyn take a surprising twist, she can’t imagine life without them.
Ms. Strong (the poetry editor at the New Haven Review and the author of the novel The Burning Sea, as well as a McDonald First-Book Prize winning poetry collection, Tour of the Breath Gallery) explores themes of isolation, loneliness, sexual identity, and family with wisdom, heart, and intelligence. Ray, Evelyn, and Ingrid are all flawed, broken characters deserving of love and redemption. In The Fainting Room, Strong captures the heart of these damaged characters with compassion and insight. The reader comes to despair for them, to love them, and ultimately to believe in their ability to persevere.
I read The Fainting Room in one sitting. When I was finished, I needed that strong cup of coffee with an even stronger shot of bourbon, and a cigarette.
The Fainting Room
By Sarah Pemberton
Paperback, 9781935439769, 359 pp.