Cressida, the twenty-six-year-old protagonist of Michelle Huneven’s latest novel aptly titled Off Course (2014), is still trying to figure out her place in the world when she moves to her parents’ mountain cabin to write her economics dissertation. Despite the ostensible purpose of her relocation, Cressida subconsciously desires a diversion, one that will enable her to avoid the decisions that the end of her college years presage. Quinn — older, married, with two children — becomes her lover and her detour from responsibility. Quinn, too, is trying to escape; for him it is the pain of his father’s suicide and the knowledge that his marriage was a mistake. He and Cressida find refuge in each other and in the isolation of the mountain.
Cressida in Off Course, like Patsy in Huneven’s previous novel, Blame, elicits our goodwill and sympathy not because she is a good person but because, like most of us, she lives with moral ambivalence:
She should get out. It was time. Past time. And she wanted out, she really did. A least part of her did. More and more, it seemed, she was in a civil war with herself, the side that had dug in versus the side that wanted out. The dug-in side was like a steel I-beam sunk deep in unconscious muck. The wanting-out side was like that sheep of his uncle’s, tangled deep in the brambles, bleating weakly for someone, anyone, to come and yank her free.
Nearly everyone on the mountain suspends the ethical code that governs life below. Sexual encounters that would be illicit in the valley are accepted, if not condoned, and relatively out in the open. These attitudes influence Cressida, allowing her to believe her affair with Quinn is acceptable and even that she is a victim. When she sees the movie Fatal Attraction, Cressida reflects:
. . . her sympathies were definitely with the mistress, who was up against the blameless bland wife and family itself, that fortress of sanctified virtue . . . . The pet boiler, Cress felt, had struck a blow for their kind. The discarded. The unchosen.
While Off Course is about the disappointment and pain that Cressida experiences from her love affair with Quinn, Huneven has crafted a novel that is about much more than a troubled romance: the sexual and professional double standards of the 1980s; the temporary excitement and chimerical freedom from consequence in behaving irresponsibly; the need for community and belonging.
The latter is the novel’s lodestone. When Cressida arrives on the mountain she sees herself as a frustrated artist, a disappointed lover, a slighted daughter, a minority in a male-dominated profession. The members of the mountain community become her family and with them she experiences a sense of belonging that is absent in her relations with family, academic colleagues, and friends. But at the same time the isolation and otherworldliness of the mountain suppress Cressida’s capacity for empathy, emotional maturity, and accountability.
Huneven is masterful at character development, and, while at times it may feel that her focus on character works to the detriment of narrative momentum, Off Course’s gradual progressions match Cressida’s equivocation and lack of direction.
Off Course is a fine novel, but I am eager to see a more ambitious novel from Huneven in the future given her ability to create finely-tuned characters and moral situations that are relatable yet complex. For those who have yet to read Huneven — and you should — I recommend Blame, a novel that has a more original premise and a greater emotional impact than Off Course.