The Half Moon
Mary Beth Keane
Simon & Schuster (2023)
304 pp. $28 (hardcover)
Was it the bar or the baby that brought their marriage to its knees? The failing bar, that is, or the lack of a baby. Malcolm Gephardt is unsure. He knows only that—whether because of the bills, which have piled up since he finally bought out the Half Moon, where he has worked for decades, or the couple’s inability to conceive—his relationship with his lawyer wife, Jess, has foundered. He has not seen her since she left their shared hometown of Gillam, New York, to stay with a friend in the city some seventeen weeks earlier.
Still, on the snowy night Mary Beth Keane’s latest novel, The Half Moon, opens, Malcolm cannot help but find cause for hope. Arriving outside the bar, he
felt a pull of energy, that singular happy chaos that can only be found inside a crowded bar when the music is good, people are running into friends, and the whole place is cozy despite the bone-cold world outside [ . . . ] he slid neatly into his parking spot and felt a thrill of hope, of faith, shoot through him for the first time in weeks: in himself, in his town, in these people, in life, in destiny, in following one’s intuition.
This faith, we later learn, is a central facet of Malcom’s character, crystallized as a kid during a near drowning experience. Stranded in the middle of an ostensibly deserted lake at the onset of a storm, a ten- or eleven-year-old Malcom was suddenly picked up by an old man in a motorboat—or, as he suggests, recounting the anecdote to a faintly annoyed Jess, “he was rescued because he was always going to be rescued.” Now, remembering Jess’s reaction, who “seemed to consider [his confidence] a sign of something else,” Malcolm admits that he “never understood why that”—his belief that everything will turn out all right in the end—“was such a thing for her.”
On this night, however, Malcolm’s unflappable faith seems initially well placed. The bar is packed despite the rising blizzard. The atmosphere is generally amicable; patrons are singing. And then Tripp Waggoner, a middle-aged local who “does something in finance,” gets drunk. Belligerent and boasting about plans to move to Peru and “get off the grid,” he goads a younger drinker into punching him. The fight breaks up before it starts. Still, the “magical bubble had burst”—tabs are closed, coats donned. People head out into the wintry gale.
By nine o’clock, the Half Moon is deserted save for Malcom’s long-time friends Patrick and Siobhán. The couple has news: Jess is back in Gillam. She has moved in with Neil Bratton, a fellow lawyer and recently divorced dad of three new to the area. Apparently, the two have been seeing each other since meeting at a neighborhood barbecue a year earlier.
Keane thereby introduces the set of concerns which occupy the novel’s cozily intriguing (if somewhat baggy) first half. The narrative is set during a single week. Snowed in on opposite sides of town by the record-setting winter storm, Malcolm and Jess relive scenes from their marriage: the early pregnancy scare and subsequent city hall wedding, as well as the eventual miscarriage and the many unsuccessful attempts to conceive which followed. A series of jumpy flashbacks illuminate Jess’s growing dissatisfaction with her job at a city firm, including the private suspicion that she was turned down for partner because—in the words of a friend from law school—“with Malcolm, Jess’s boundaries would always be Gillam’s.” Malcolm also reflects on his tenuous business arrangement with Hugh Lyon, the Half Moon’s former owner. (Unbeknownst to Malcolm, Hugh has his own sketchy complaints with Malcolm’s late father, who once operated a successful bar in New York.)
For Jess, Neil appears simultaneously more and less attractive than her husband. Where Malcolm is “beautiful, still [ . . . ] the kind of man who’d get better with each passing year,” Neil is simply “a nice-looking guy [who] carried himself like an athlete.” But Neil has the family Jess craves. Malcolm negotiates business deals behind Jess’s back and contemplates asking his elderly mother for a loan; Neil lives comfortably in Azalea Estates, the “posh section of Gillam.” As a senior partner at a major civil litigation firm, Neil understands, too, the specific pressures and ambitions of a legal career. And so, months earlier, Jess found herself texting Neil, pulling over on the highway to respond to his messages and then wondering “why she hadn’t simply waited until she got home.” They first hooked up on a Friday; Malcolm was at the bar when Neil stopped by the Gephardt’s home to see Jess, who could feel “the electric hum inside her body getting stronger.”
These various threads, spun out and braided during the initial days of the storm, bring us to the novel’s approximate halfway point. Here, the threat of inertia looms; both Malcolm and Jess register as, understandably, hurt and, understandably, regretful. Shivering in the cold home the couple once shared, Malcolm wonders “if it were possible to change, to end up in a life completely different from the one he thought he was in.” Jess—caught up in her own nostalgic remembrances at Neil’s—thinks of her twenty-something self, pregnant and newly married, observing that “there was something crucial about her life that she didn’t know then, and the present-day Jess wanted to reach back and shake her.” She wonders: “If it were possible to send that girl a message, what exactly would she say?”
Readers may wonder similarly. They may also wonder where Keane is headed with her story. The Gephardts have reached an ostensible stalemate, however rue-riddled or painful. For lack of a catalyst, it feels difficult to envision movement of any kind. Keane herself observes that the storm offers “time suspended. No need to decide anything because it was not real life, not until the snow melted and the power was restored.”
And then comes a knock on Malcolm’s door. It is Rob Waggoner, the police officer who ushers in a welcome second act—albeit an odd one. Rob’s father, Tripp, has been missing since he got drunk at the Half Moon in the novel’s opening pages. A somewhat detached sequence of events ensues: Tripp is linked to an SEC investigation alongside one of Malcolm’s employees; the Gephardts reunite to contemplate insurance fraud; the storm abates; Jess loses interest in Neil; Hugh’s issues with Malcolm’s father are uncovered. Throughout, the pacing feels off, alternately rushed and dragging. What is more, when the Gephardts do eventually figure out how to reconcile their careers and relationship, the resolution seems stilted. What about Jess’s desire for a baby? Her maternal yearning—sketched so scrupulously by Keane’s earlier descriptions of ectopic pregnancies, heartbreaking miscarriages, and increasingly expensive and convoluted fertility treatments—appears incongruously absent from the couple’s plans to hit the “reset button,” as Jess calls it. Are we to assume she has given up? Or that her brief stint as a pseudo-stepmother for Neil’s children satiated her once overpowering maternal desires?
Though these and other unresolved questions are needling, narrative does not drive this book. From the outset, one has the sense that the Gephardts will find their way back to each other across Gillam’s frozen terrain—it is only ever a question of how. As such, the plot feels like a necessary yet often clumsily installed backdrop against which Keane can orchestrate the interpersonal moments she writes so well. Take, for instance, a quietly wrenching scene from the Gephardt’s marriage in its early stages of dissolution:
They arrived separately because Patrick texted Malcolm to pick up a few bags of ice, and Jess made a Buffalo chicken dip she wanted to bring over early in case Siobhán wanted to pretend she made it. They passed each other in the hallway in their haste, each hustling to their separate assignments, Malcolm in a new T-shirt that still had the size sticker on the sleeve. She put her hand on his chest and he looked at her with alarm, as if he had to brace himself every time she took a breath to speak. She saw everything he feared she would say pass through him, and he knew she saw it and neither of them said a word. She peeled the sticker off and held the little XL circle on her fingertip to show him. He stood there, his expression different now, full of relief, though he would have denied it.
This is the language, heady and unpretentious, which colors Keane’s portrait of a marriage on the edge. It is also the language with which she ultimately suggests how—through mistakes, persistence, and above all, love—two people might strike a working balance between faith and self-determination to build, and re-build, a life together.
ELLIE EBERLEE is a recent Master’s graduate in English literature from the University of Oxford who is currently working for Oxford University Press from her hometown of Toronto. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, the Literary Review (UK), the Literary Review of Canada, and the Chicago Review of Books, among other venues.