Stan and Karen McArdle, slightly drunk, were driving home across the George Washington Bridge when they saw a young woman in their lane. Stan swerved and crashed, hitting the railing, but instead of calling 911, immediately called his twin, Pickle, a police officer. The woman, Junie, had been on the bridge with her boyfriend, Jacob, with whom she had a suicide pact. They’d argued, and when she turned away, he jumped. Karen ushered Junie into the backseat of their Volvo and vowed to take care of her.
Karen installed Junie into the basement of the brownstone she, Stan, and Pickle owned together. The brownstone itself was a source of contention since Karen and Stan had renovated the bottom two levels and moved in a year prior, but Pickle was impatiently waiting for the renovation of his top floors.
Flashbacks reveal that Karen, Stan, and Pickle have had a long, complicated relationship, made more difficult by the influence of (now deceased) Mrs. McArdle who inexplicably favored Stan and despised Pickle. The delicate balance of their threesome was disturbed by Junie’s arrival. Pickle believed she was his soulmate and considered retiring from the police force, Stan stopped drinking and relaxed some of his obsessive ticks, and Karen feared the destruction of the harmony she’d stoked for years.
Pickle’s Progress is a character-driven novel, and it focuses more on Pickle and Karen, to me the least likable. While I don’t require characters to be likeable–in fact, too likable, they lose their complexity–but Pickle and Karen are simply mean. Pickle, for example, lies about Jacob to Junie so he will have a better chance with her. Karen consistently puts down Stan and Pickle and manipulates those around her, when she isn’t ordering them directly. The title implies that Pickle will develop psychologically, but while circumstances change for him, it doesn’t seem that he has really come to terms with his past or resolved to alter his behavior in the future.
The dialogue is written to be sharp and witty, but to me it didn’t land, and instead felt clunky and labored. At one point, Karen and Stan were compared to George and Martha of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? If Butler was trying to emulate his repartee, she wasn’t quite skillful enough to execute it (though who is?).
An epilogue, in the form of a letter written three years after the main events of the novel, indicate that some interesting developments occurred, perhaps more interesting than those we were privy to in the narrative.
I suppose if I am reaching, I would say the novel speaks to the need to forgive oneself and step away from the past to find love in the present, but the message isn’t completely clear, and I’m a bit baffled what I’ve read.
Thanks to NetGalley and Central Avenue Publishing for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.