Novel: Magnificence by Lydia Millet

Magnificence (2012) by Lydia Millet is the funny, moving, and insightful conclusion to the trilogy begun with How the Dead Dream. It’s a thought-provoking series that examines, with acid wit, American attitudes about consumerism, the environment, and personal fulfillment. It lacks the first novel’s conceptual freshness, perhaps, and Ghost Lights’ exotic setting, but it’s a highly satisfying thematic conclusion to the trilogy, by turns wickedly funny and achingly sad.

The protagonist is Susan Lindley, an unambitious office worker and serial adulterer, lazing her way through her forties in Southern California. Susan’s meandering existence is shocked into a new phase when her husband dies, followed shortly thereafter by an unexpected inheritance. A distant uncle leaves her a palatial mansion in Pasadena, a huge, isolated old house with spacious grounds, and filled with a weird, fascinating taxidermy collection. Severed entirely from her previous mundane life, she wrestles with grief, newfound wealth, unexpected free time, litigious relatives, and other family crises while also gradually investigating the mansion’s many hidden secrets and mysteries.

A short, blazingly fast read, Magnificence sounds static in summary but moves along with graceful quickness, building on the questions and themes of the previous books. The often-deployed humor is smart and clever — Vonnegut-sharp — but the book is also filled with beautiful moments and piercing insights into gender politics, guilt, humanity’s relationship with nature, responsibility, and death.  Memorable work from a writer to treasure; looking forward to more of her work.

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