Swan Huntley, author of We Could Be Beautiful, creates a completely different narrative and a complexity of characters in her second novel, The Goddesses.
In We Could Be Beautiful, Huntley’s main character Catherine never surpassed the first impression of a privileged trust fund endowed woman-child desperate for love and validation, resulting in a major deception. The Goddesses presents a page-turning narrative of female empowerment and a binding conviction that sisters can do it for themselves, even if the sisters are not what they at first seemed to be.
The story is one of female friendship, gradually turned into dangerous obsession and manipulation. But if you were to lump The Goddesses with something akin to Single White Female, you would be sadly oversimplifying it. Nancy, Huntley’s main character, is an outwardly tranquil housewife who has been wronged by her husband Chuck and his adultery.
Not to mention his pitiful halfhearted attempts to remain sober, which more often than not, fail miserably. We can laugh at Chuck and his tries at ‘swaggerness’ when he inserts into his repertoire, phrases like “Whoa, Nelly” especially when his sons are in the room. Conversely though, we can’t help shaking our heads and thinking that perhaps Nancy deserves much better.
In the throes of her disappointment and a family that’s slowly breaking apart, its rupture accelerating the constant acting out of her twin teenage boys, Chuck and Nancy move the family to Hawaii as an endeavor to start over and leave the memories of their failing marriage behind. Huntley’s descriptions of Hawaii are astounding, understandable since along with California, it’s the place she calls home. The lush forests and imposing volcanoes that undoubtedly are her familiar terrain, become the backdrop for Nancy’s quest, a new chance to just be, to begin a new life.
It’s here, in this lavish Elysium that she meets Ana, a yoga teacher abundant with new age speak that Huntley keeps intelligently on the other side of becoming commonplace and stereotypical. This works just fine because we quickly learn that Ana is anything but predictable.
In The Goddesses, there’s a recognizable twinge of Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal as a commentary on the female psyche when a friendship is cemented on a need to dominate and exert power play. And although in John Fowles’ The Magus there is no observation on the nature of female obsession, Fowles’ main character, Nicholas Urfe is swiftly and systematically led to madness (coincidentally on an island) by a powerful and wealthy benefactor.
As Ana and Nancy form a fast and unusual bond, the latter begins pushing her family aside to make room for the stranger who begins referring to herself as Nancy’s “soulmate” and her “twin.” This means dinners missed, less time with her sons who are dealing with demons of their own. Plus, a marriage, that far from being on the road to recovery seems even more cracked at the seams with Ana’s intrusion, as she constantly plants doubts about Chuck in Nancy’s head. The intrusion becomes even more disturbing when Ana moves in with the family as Chuck is moved swiftly out. When Ana leaves a snake in Chuck’s car, she tells Nancy cheekily: “So biblical, right?” which presumably alludes to Chuck’s past adultery.
But there is an interesting reversal in The Goddesses, opposed to other narratives of obsession among women either in literature or in film. It’s not only Ana who absorbs Nancy’s essence; Nancy absorbs Ana’s just as much. We see a void in Nancy from the beginning, which Ana is quick to fill with her abstract way of looking at life and at her own actions.
They feed off each other because they recognize in an astounding way that one has something the other needs, and if anything, it turns a potential story of victim and stalker into mutual self-insertion. This is especially telling in a scene when Ana is remarking on their apparent similarities: “I’m going to call you Nan from now on. No more Nancy. And don’t you see why? Don’t you see how the letters of our names match up perfectly? Nan and Ana! Yin and yang!”
The complicated dynamic between the two women is only exacerbated by Nancy’s refusal to see the truth about Ana even when it’s hitting her in the face. Because the narrative is told in reverse, we know that Nancy has opened her eyes to the reality of who her new spiritual double really is, evidenced in her reflection of a conversation in which Ana relayed the tale of a frog that is put in a pot of boiling water as opposed to the frog that is placed in the pot in which the heat is gradually increased. “In one,” Ana explains, “the frog will jump; in the other, the frog will boil.” Nancy questions why at the time of that conversation, she didn’t think to herself: “Jump.”
The Goddesses has an atmosphere of suspense that almost makes it into a theatrical psychological thriller. As the novel moves forward, we come to realize that there is something really wrong with Ana, something that goes beyond her need for Nancy’s sole attention. But we also grasp onto the fact that Nancy is the custodian of a life-long secret which makes her vulnerable to Ana’s subterfuge. This is not revealed until the end, when we finally understand why Nancy willfully closed her eyes and ears to the many clues pointing to Ana’s true intentions.
With The Goddesses, Swan Huntley validated major missteps involving lack of character development and fortitude in We Could Be Beautiful. Her second novel more than compensates in presenting not just a scary revelation of obsession and the consequences of being blind to it, but also the possibility of redeeming one’s mistakes, along with the beauty of reinvention and true Namaste.