Magnificence by Lydia Millet | Book review
Millet crafts the perfect anti-heroine.
In How the Dead Dream and Ghost Lights, Lydia Millet established herself as queen of what could be called “the domestic surreal.” Her novels are populated by suburban misfits—upper-middle-class people whose lives have suddenly taken a turn toward the absurd. Magnificence, the last in a series of interconnected novels, continues the trend with protagonist Susan Lindley, who within the first 15 pages, becomes widowed—punishment, she believes, for her habitual infidelity. While still processing the loss of her husband, Susan learns of another death in the family, a great-uncle who leaves her his sprawling Pasadena mansion despite only having met her once when she was a child. Great-Uncle Albert was a collector of taxidermy, and his home is an amateur natural history museum brimming with painted murals and mounted animals. To her surprise, Susan decides to preserve the menagerie, realizing “the dead were almost as beautiful as the living” and “had far fewer needs.”
The living company she keeps is equally unusual, including Angela, the senile mother of her son-in-law, and Jim, a married lawyer with whom she might be falling in love. Susan devotes herself to restoring the mansion and its stuffed inhabitants to their former glory while trying to piece together the mystery of the man who left her his bounty for no apparent reason. She’s the perfect anti-heroine: flawed and selfish, but self-aware and brutally funny. Around her, Millet has crafted a quirky but compelling tale that might seem slight if not for Susan’s insights into these strange events. The symbolism is obvious: Surrounded by dead things, a middle-aged woman remembers how to live again. Yet Millet’s lyrical prose makes it a weird world worth exploring.