Like a lot of women I know who’ve only dated men, Flavia — the titular neurotic blonde in Jen Beagin’s new novel, “Big Swiss” — would make an exception for Detective Olivia Benson. Luckily, but also unluckily (Flavia is married, after all), there is a Mariska Hargitay look-alike at her local dog park, and like the “Law & Order: S.V.U.” siren, this stranger is not the type to beat around the bush. No, Greta goes straight to the bush. “You must get this a lot,” she says, “but would you mind taking a quick look at this thing on my labia?”
Flavia is a gynecologist who harbors a dark past. Eight years ago, she was brutally attacked by a man now set to be released from prison. But Flavia’s “not one of these trauma people,” she assures her sex therapist, coolly, Swiss-ly. “I’m not attached to my suffering.” So what’s she doing in therapy at all? Well — she can’t have an orgasm, and when asked to describe sex with her husband, she replies: “like driving home from work and not remembering the ride.” The woman is as cold as forceps.
These admissions are typed out in the novel as transcripts of her therapy sessions. The transcriber listening in is none other than the dog park seductress herself, Greta, who had already fallen in love with Flavia’s voice long before they met IRL: “a voice you could snag your sweater on,” she thinks, but also one “sweet enough to suck on.” And suck Flavia she will, like a Swiss cough drop. “Ricola!” Greta imagines her yodeling upon orgasm. Theirs is a passionate affair, but Greta opts for a more irreverent label: a fest of the explicit sort. What to call things comes up not very often; their mouths are otherwise occupied. Flavia calls them “bisexual,” but Greta, who “couldn’t imagine settling on anything,” leaves it at “gayish.”
Greta has one of the many poorly paid health care jobs that now dominate the industry, part of a transformation in working-class labor away from manufacturing that the historian Gabriel Winant documented in “The Next Shift” (2021). In all her fiction Beagin likes to use class not just as a theme, but as a literary device, one that the rich can’t easily co-opt. Her characters collect secrets to collect their checks, like Mona, the housecleaner protagonist of her first two novels, “Pretend I’m Dead” (2018) and “Vacuum in the Dark” (2019); as readers we feast on the dirty laundry she finds under mattresses and inside cushions. Now Greta, an eavesdropper by trade, spills the sex secrets of the privileged bohemians of Hudson, N.Y. While waiting for her coffee at a cafe, she hears the voice of “A.A.G.,” a patient who likes to perform oral sex on his sister-in-law like a French foodie — that is to say, with a napkin over his head.
My mother is a medical transcriptionist, and I confess it brought me great pride to see her job — confusingly unprestigious to a lot of the people I interact with now (“Can’t that be done by computers?” they ask) — appreciated as one of the most intimate acts of literary interpretation there is. Whereas the therapist barely registers his patients’ pauses, Greta obsesses over them, feeling their omission from the record as unbearable, even malpractice.
But here I go getting sentimental and blabbering on about my upbringing — precisely the kind of inner-child healing crap Flavia and Greta swear to hate. Greta is also “not one of those trauma people” — despite dealing with the aftereffects of a family suicide and having been held up at gunpoint at the pharmacy where she used to work by a man demanding oxy 30s. Greta and Flavia say they aren’t wounded, that they don’t care about getting to the bottom of things, and yet — tellingly — they each vie to bottom whenever they make love. They are betrayed, as we all are, by their desires. Lube is also a salve.
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