The Art of Falling, her debut novel, also focuses on a marriage torn apart by an affair, but this time Philip and his wife, Nessa (our protagonist), have stayed together. McLaughlin’s portrait of this strained relationship is pleasingly frank (“She supposed that she should make an effort. Otherwise what was the point in spending all that money on counselling?”). Quickly, though, the marriage becomes little more than a subplot as McLaughlin piles on drama from all directions. There’s controversy at the art gallery where Nessa works, as the origin of an acclaimed sculpture is brought into question. And we learn of Nessa’s Fleabagesque guilt when her now-dead best friend’s husband, with whom she had an affair, reappears. There’s so much going on that the characters sometimes feel like mere facilitators of the plot, which itself has holes; most frustratingly when the tracing app that lets Nessa find her daughter the first time she goes missing is not mentioned when she disappears again.
McLaughlin is a master of charting the volatility of characters’ perceptions of themselves, most notably in the depiction of how Nessa’s feelings about her marriage fluctuate wildly from a sense of blissful intimacy to one of dejected isolation. The Art of Falling showcases her particular talent for subtly evoking the opacity of social interactions — the ways in which language, verbal and bodily, often proves only an approximation of what we want to say, and how an ill-chosen word can send a conversation or even a relationship irreversibly awry.
Danielle McLaughlin is a remarkable writer. Reading “Dinosaurs on Other Planets,” her 2016 collection of short stories, one is struck by the sheer gorgeousness of the prose, particularly in descriptions of natural settings; by the quick, seemingly effortless characterizations of her often very complex characters... In her new novel, her first, “The Art of Falling,” we encounter many of these same gifts, but here they’re not offered with as sure a hand. And when they do make themselves evident, they often seem swamped by a tendency to pile on event after event, as if that were the difference between a short story and a novel — the need for more to happen, and even more after that... We want to go on reading because there are examples of McLaughlin’s gifts on every page, and in them the promise of the pleasure a novel more fully in her control will offer. I, for one, can’t wait.