REVIEW: Jean Thompson's Brilliant New Novel is a Thelma & Louise for Our Time

She Poured Out Her Heart by Jean Thompson

Blue Rider Press            432 pp.

By Julia Keller

Did anyone happen to notice that Jean Thompson predicted the rise of Donald Trump? It’s right there in the opening paragraphs of her 2013 novel The Humanity Project, a darkly entertaining take on the contemporary world. Long before anyone took Trump seriously—back when his family members were still rolling their eyes and trying to settle him down late at night with a glass of warm milk and a gently placating, “Ri-i-i-i-ght, Donnie. You can be president. Sure you can!”—Thompson enumerated the very elements that were to catapult the pumpkin-hued plutocrat to the top of the Republican heap:

We were afraid of many things. Of our children, who lived in their own world of casually lurid pleasures, zombies and cartoon killers and thuggish music. Of our neighbors, who were buying gold and ammunition and great quantities of freeze-dried food, and who were organizing themselves into angry tribes recognizable to one another by bumper stickers. We feared that our lives had been spent in piling up not treasures but great heaps of discardable and wasteful things . . . [M]oney seemed to be draining away from us like water in a leaky sink, and most of all we feared a future of privation and loss.

Our politicians were no help at all.

Novelists can either tell us about the world as it is or was, or they can tell us about the world as it is going to be.  Among the former, we have the lilting verisimilitude of a John Updike or an Anne Tyler or a Richard Russo; their novels fulfill John Fowles’s dictum that the task of fiction is “to create a world as real as, but other than, the world that is.” These writers describe us in all of our infinite variety and granular particularity, telling us where we are and where we’ve been. The other kind of novelist tells us where we’re going.

And sometimes, the news is pretty grim.

In her latest novel, She Poured Out Her Heart, Thompson is at her prescient, brilliant best. She has crafted a tale about a highly recognizable Now that also functions as a scarily plausible vision of Later—of what’s coming down the road for her characters, and perhaps for the culture, too. Only a few novelists can pull off this dual mission. Margaret Atwood comes to mind. Don DeLillo, too. What distinguishes Thompson’s work, however, is that in the midst of her finely tuned interrogation of the zeitgeist, she also weaves a damned good yarn. The test for this attribute is simple: Do you want to know what happens next?

In She Poured Out Her Heart, you do. You very, very much do. You can’t rest until you know—which is why this is Thompson’s best effort yet, a tense, artful, rich and involving novel that strips the world down to its bones and also makes you care deeply for the two women whose lives it lays bare.

Bonnie and Jane meet in college, become friends, and then embark upon their respective tomorrows. Bonnie’s a savvy single gal with a penchant for the Chicago bar scene; her Rosetta stone is her complicated family life. Jane is a quiet, self-effacing wife, and mother of two. They keep in touch. They do what they do.

And then everything starts to unravel. Bonnie begins to loathe her shallow, unsatisfying life. Jane is having spells—odd episodes when she floats out of reality’s reach, when she goes to “a white, white room” in her mind amidst “a sound that might have been a buzz or a hum but was neither.” Bonnie drifts into a dreary series of dead-end hookups with what-was-I-THINKING? men, while Jane’s marriage is inexorably losing its soul, like a tire with a slow leak.
So far, so Thelma & Louise.

But Thompson’s work is made of sterner stuff. This isn’t just a female buddy story, a sort of estrogen-fueled version of Butch and Sundance. It is a morally complex tragedy, and if Thompson weren’t such a naturally funny writer, the emotional weight of She Poured Out Her Heart might crush the reader, so immense and persuasive are the ethical dilemmas and unresolvable burdens that haunt these women. Always, in a Thompson novel, the humor softens the blow.

As Jane and her husband are having dinner at a fine restaurant, she is aghast at the prices: “. . . it was all so viciously expensive. You half expected to see the cast of Les Miserables pressed against the windows.” 

When they move to Atlanta, Jane is unimpressed: “[I]t was all so brand new and hyperdeveloped, the whole of it could be picked up and set down several hundred miles away without anyone noticing.”

When Bonnie goes to visit the wife of a man with whom she’s been having an affair, she brings a bottle of red wine “that could serve as a peace offering, an anesthetic, or even to help disguise bloodstains.”

Emotional nuances are another Thompson specialty. “Did love get worn down over time?” Bonnie asks herself. “Did it change form like a chemistry experiment, from a fizzy potion to an inch of tar in the bottom of a beaker?”

Later, bumping into an ex-lover who jilted her, Bonnie is prey to a sudden gust of fury: “She wanted him to be worthy of all the feeling she’d invested in him. All those times when the very fact of his absence had made him so spectacularly present, when the edge of her longing was so sharp, she could have cut herself on it.” Reading those words, anyone who’s ever run into a former partner will feel a little twist in the gut. Thompson has nailed it—that surge of yearning and regret, with a pinch of shame.

Details from the physical world, too, are presented with such acute clarity and perfection in She Poured Out Her Heart that you will find yourself nodding constantly in recognition. Jane’s husband is sitting in the den one night, “his feet up, a drink beside him on the table, the television talking quietly to itself.” Ah, yes. That’s exactly what televisions do, most of the time; they talk to themselves, and occasionally we eavesdrop.

Readers are likely to keep switching their allegiance between Bonnie and Jane, between the party girl and the good mom, between the woman who can’t escape her past and the woman who can’t face her future. First you’ll root for Bonnie, then Jane, then back to Bonnie again. Finally you will decide that you don’t like either one of them very much, and then you will change your mind one more time after that: You love and pity them both.

Everybody has something they wish for. Bonnie is desperate for affection. Jane needs peace. Those are oversimplifications, of course, but wishes need to be simple; it’s when we load them up with contingencies and complications that they shudder under the strain and start to lose their shape, their meaning. Perhaps, in the end, we are defined by our desires. Not so much by what we do—but by what we want, deep in our grubby, conventional little hearts, and by what we are willing to do to procure those things that will, we earnestly tell ourselves, bring us happiness.

So we have come full circle, back to the list on the first page of The Humanity Project, a list that creepily foretold Trump’s domination of the Republican primary. When we’re frightened and confused, we reach for a remedy, even if we know it’s bad for us. In She Poured Out Her Heart, Thompson is riding out in front yet again, telling us vital secrets about ourselves, things we won’t know until we get to where we’re going.

Toward the end of the novel, Jane writes in her journal. She is recounting a game she plays with her daughter, a game that involves an imaginary door and a passionate wish to find your heart’s desire behind it. “Like all magic,” Jane explains, “it only works if you aren’t too greedy with your asking.”

Such is the paradox of life: to get anything, you have to be willing to live without it. To possess, you must first renounce, and you must mean it.  That is the great, lonely beauty at the heart of this extraordinary and essential novel about women’s souls.

Julia Keller, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and former cultural critic at The Chicago Tribune, is the author of the forthcoming Sorrow Road, the fifth novel in the critically acclaimed series set in a small West Virginia town. The first book in the series, A Killing in the Hills (2012), was a Publishers Weekly Pick of the Week, a Library Journal Debut of the Week and a featured selection in People.  Julia was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton University. She has also taught at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago. She has served four times as a juror for the Pulitzer Prizes.