Big Swiss is set in Hudson, New York, a small town full of city people who have moved to the countryside to start new lives. The typical Hudsonite’s story is: “I was a corporate lawyer in the city for years, and then I moved to Hudson and became a flower farmer/doll maker/antiques dealer/chef/arborist/alcoholic, and I never looked back.” Narrator Greta works as an audio transcriber for a sex therapist who employs new agey methods such as gong baths and calls himself Om; as he tells Greta, “Everything in Hudson is a little on-the-nose.”
Hudson is also small enough that everyone runs into everyone everywhere, and Greta regularly hears voices she recognises from her transcribing work; on a typical visit to a coffee shop, she will involuntarily peg one customer as the man who is sleeping with his sister-in-law, and another as the guy who describes his penis as “Darth Vader in a turtleneck”. This has dramatic consequences when Greta becomes infatuated with one of the people she’s transcribing, Flavia, a Swiss woman recovering from a brutal assault. Flavia has a voice “like a blade”, a husband unable to give her an orgasm, a silver wolf-dog of unearthly beauty, and the habit of walking him in the same dog park where Greta walks her beloved Jack Russell.
Big Swiss is a fluffy sex comedy with a dark underbelly. In fact, its dark underbelly has a darker underbelly, which is then startlingly fluffy. There are multiple trauma plotlines: Greta is emotionally stunted by her mother’s suicide when she was 13; Flavia is still coping with aftershocks from the assault that almost killed her; even Greta’s landlady, Sabine, has a dark secret and a recovery arc. Meanwhile, Flavia’s attacker has been released from prison and may be stalking her. It’s an abuse-themed love story with a dash of psychological thriller where everything is played for laughs. Somewhat miraculously, this mixture works. The voice is sharp, the plot is compelling, the jokes are funny and sometimes startling, as the very best comedy is; it’s easy to forgive the odd moments when two elements clash.
What is sometimes a problem is Beagin’s excessive use of quirky details. Everything and everyone is manically peculiar. Om’s everyday garb is “a white fishnet tank top, a chunky cardigan, and white harem pants”. Sabine shoplifts by secreting objects in her unusually dense hair. Every character, however minor, is assigned at least one bizarre trait – the habit of reading John O’Hara’s novel BUtterfield 8 over and over; a fetish for performing cunnilingus with a napkin draped over the head, as if eating ortolan; a collection of vintage prison shivs; a tendency to hallucinate Jason Bateman from stress. The decaying 18th-century house Greta shares with Sabine is infested at various points with stinkbugs, maggots, spiders, and 60,000 honeybees that have built a hive in the kitchen ceiling; its back yard features a stray rooster named Walter and two mini donkeys. Often the action stops dead while the characters deal with the latest beasts and grotesques, and it can come to feel as if there is a hive of 60,000 quirks living in the novel’s ceiling. This becomes jarring in the sections dealing with suicide and its aftermath, a subject that just doesn’t want to be silly.
But the book is salvaged, time and again, by Beagin’s formidable wit and her ability to write. Every page is packed with good jokes, keen observations and idiosyncratically wonderful prose. A real standout were the sex scenes. “Her pussy looked like advanced origami. A crisp pink lotus flower folded by a master. Greta briefly rearranged it with her mouth. The flower transformed into an acorn. Then a unicorn. Greta dragged her tongue over it diagonally three dozen times. Now it resembled three dragonflies languidly mating on a lily pad. She reached for her phone.” The shock of ending this paragraph with a nonconsensual photo is the natural/unnatural fun of Big Swiss in a nutshell. Because this is also a sneakily transgressive book; it affirms the value of screwed-up relationships that should never have been, and treats the most antisocial behaviour – adultery, drug addiction, intergenerational attraction, stalking, therapeutic malpractice – without judgment.
In my darker moments as a reviewer, I sometimes wonder if book reviews are even useful, given that different readers have such different tastes. With this book I found a sort of answer. I can recommend it even to people who might end up hating it. It made my brain do interesting, uncomfortable things and left me questioning my beliefs about attraction, grief, how recovery works, and a dozen other fundamental things. It can be offensive, frustrating, even unconvincing, but it’s never boring. It’s giddy fluff with lashings of grit and a touch of holy fire.
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Big Swiss is published by Faber (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.