Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Mary Beth Keane writes the sort of fiction which digs a little deeper than your typical thrillers and mysteries, often exploring some of the greyer areas in our lives. In The Half Moon, she tells us the story of Malcolm and Jess Gephardt, a couple faced with a rather uncertain future, one where their dreams and life aspirations might be extinguished for good.
Table of contents
Mary Beth Keane Meditates on the Strange Period
Because the life of any living being has a beginning, an end, and follows more or less the same patterns, it is possible to divide our existence into a series of inescapable phases. Most of them are rather clearly-defined, but one stands out as a bit of a grey zone we all traverse in our own unique ways: midlife. In her novel titled The Half Moon, Mary Beth Keane explores this unique part of life through Malcolm and Jess Gephardt.
Seen from the outside, they seem to be having a more or less idyllic small-town existence in Gillam. On one hand, Malcolm’s boss has just retired, and he has now finally jumped on the opportunity to become the owner of his own bar. On the other, Jess is pursuing a very successful law career to which she has devoted herself body and soul.
Beneath the surface though, many cracks are beginning to show, placing a hefty strain on them both. Though Malcolm sees the potential for untold success and quasi-magical moments in the titular bar (the Half Moon), he struggles to merely stay afloat, never mind moving on to bigger and better things. He knows this is one opportunity which won’t rear its head again, should he lose the bar.
On her end, Jess is facing a heart-wrenching internal struggle. For years and years they have been trying to have a baby, but after so many failures and shattered hopes, she is coming to terms with the idea she might never become a mother, no matter how hard she tries. Slowly but surely, she feels her youth slipping away into nothingness, and her dreams evaporating alongside with it.
Over the course of the next week, both Malcolm and Jess will go on their own personal odysseys (without actually leaving the town, of course), involving the revelation of shocking news, a missing bar patron, and a massive blizzard which traps everyone in the town. In the end, whether or not their dreams are to be realized, they must find a way of moving forward, because life certainly isn’t going to wait for them.
The Small Crises of Marriage in The Half Moon
So to start things off, be warned this is a slower type of novel, one which works more as a character study, rather than some thrilling and emotional tale. It aims to be as realistic as possible to explore issues plaguing the lives of countless people, and the sort of book which is best enjoyed when one takes their time.
So what precisely is the main appeal of this book? In my opinion, Mary Beth Keane‘s greatest feat in this novel was her depiction of a marriage slowly coming apart at the seams. She shows an intricate understanding of how relationships work, or I suppose more precisely, how they can have a tendency to erode over the years, chipped by small moments here and there across vast chasms of time.
On many occasions, when we look at a failing relationship from the outside, we have difficulty understanding how and why one or both parties are willing to endure the nightmare, how they can behave towards each other in ways we can’t see ourselves acting. In The Half Moon, the author demonstrates quite adeptly how such situations can come to be, how from within the relationship the absurd can slowly become a normal state of affairs.
Both Malcolm and Jess do a few bad turns to each other, and while I will admit some of their conflicts did seem a little unimportant (perhaps even boring), they still served their purpose in creating the “whole”, which in this case, is their failing marriage. Besides, the realism of this portrayal is difficult to deny, so I didn’t find those scenes to be painful.
Naturally, it’s not all doom-and-gloom, with both Malcolm and Jess finding their own ways towards valuable life lessons, but that is not to say all ends well with everyone happy. Without spoiling anything, I’ve mentioned before the author aimed for realism in this novel, and it’s something she maintains from start to finish. In other words, I’ll only guarantee you a grounded, reasonable, and believable ending to the story.
Chasing the Horizon
As good, revealing and interesting as the study of a failing marriage might be, if this were to be all that the book had to offer, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it in the first place. Though the relationship between Malcolm and Jess is without a doubt the central linchpin of the story, The Half Moon is also a novel about not only chasing dreams and succeeding, but also coming to terms with our failure to catch them.
Both of our protagonists have their own life goals and ambitions, and we see them pursuing their chosen paths with commendable determination, which actually adds a bit of much-needed suspense to the plot. As we come to learn and care about the characters, we root for them to succeed, and knowing their triumph is far from guaranteed is a little gut-wrenching at times.
Speaking of the characters, neither Malcolm nor Jess are perfect by any stretch of the imagination. No strangers to making mistakes and accumulating big bags of regrets, they nevertheless forge on as imperfectly as they can, in the process showing the true definition of courage: to keep trying in spite of anything and everything.
I may not have always agreed with their thoughts, actions and decisions, but thanks to Mary Beth Keane‘s precise prose and knowledge of human psychology, I always understood them. In other words, whenever I tried to put myself in the shoes of the characters, I realized I myself could have made many of the dubious decisions they themselves did. All in all, they’re definitely some of the more believable and relatable protagonists I’ve seen in a long while.
To add some excitement, various events are also thrown into the mix and more than a few wrenches are thrown into our protagonists’ plans, so it’s definitely not a smooth and even ride until the end. In addition, the non-chronological narration ended up paying off quite well once I got used to it, even if it was a little confusing at first.
|May 2 2023
The Final Verdict
The Half Moon by Mary Beth Keane is a piercing and captivating work of literary fiction, dissecting the anatomy of a failing marriage, chasing our life dreams, accepting failure, and ultimately learning what really matters to us.
If you’re in the market for a calmer, more refined experience centred on the topic of marriage, or are a fan of the author’s previous novels, then I think you’ll tremendously enjoy what this book has to offer.
Mary Beth Keane
Mary Beth Keane is an American author who, in 2011, was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35”, and in 2015 received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction. Some of her better-known works include The Walking People, Fever, and Ask Again, Yes.