June 28, 1999 12:00 PM

by A.M. Homes

You know you’re in for a less-than-soothing read the moment Elaine, the disaffected housewife heroine of this grimly compelling novel, slits husband Paul’s throat—just enough to draw blood—on page 4. The horrors proliferate after that. Hoping to reinvigorate their stultifying lives, Paul and Elaine set fire to their suburban New York home and engage in sordid, unsatisfying affairs. Paul gets a painful groin tattoo (“I thought it would wake me up”), while both he and the wife he’s no longer sure he loves neglect to heed their young son’s cries for help—with chilling results.

It’s no small achievement that Homes, author of the controversial (and similarly disturbing) novels In a Country of Mothers and The End of Alice, manages to portray these blighted souls as people more to be pitied than loathed. “We’re all we have,” Elaine tells Paul, poignantly, at one point, “and we’re not enough.” (Rob Weisbach/Morrow, $26)

Bottom Line: Haunting story of suburban ennui

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