Scenes From A Marriage And Economy In Free Fall

Julian Guthrie

The Associated Press
Published: Mar 10, 2011

It was a line by Somerset Maugham about how marriage renders people
uninteresting that inspired Carol Edgarian’s new book about middle
age and middle marriage, about what happens “post-blush.”

“I read this line in ‘Razor’s Edge’ and thought, Mr. Maugham, I beg to
differ,” said Edgarian, whose new novel, “Three Stages of Amazement,”
looks at what happens in middle age, when love is no longer fresh
and potential seems no longer limitless, when dreams go unrealized
and tragedy visits.

“Middle age and middle marriage are really interesting ground for
me,” said Edgarian, who is 48, has been married for 17 years, and has
two daughters and a stepdaughter. “The assumption for much of life
is that you are in command of where you get. But fate plays a much
larger hand. Babies die. Markets turn. People get ill. Money runs
out. You fall in love and yet the love is not enough to sustain you.

So what happens when you are tested?”

Edgarian’s new work comes 17 years after the publication of her
best-selling debut novel, “Rise the Euphrates,” about three generations
of Armenian American women living in Connecticut.

Set in San Francisco, “Three Stages of Amazement,” published this
week by Scribner and already in its third printing, tells the story
of Lena Rusch and her husband, Charlie Pepper, casting them at the
start as “part of the generation of winners” who believe that, with
“luck and push,” they “would have everything.”

The book moves from confidence to uncertainty, coming to rest tenuously
in between.

“There are these two main characters who have arrived at middle age
and have been running on the assumption of limitless potential,” said
Edgarian, sitting in a cafe near her home in lower Pacific Heights.

“The jig is up and they have to confront real limitations.”

The journey of Lena and Charlie mirrors the book’s broader context.

The story begins on New Year’s Eve 2008 and ends a year later,
a period following market meltdowns, bank failures, foreclosures
and bankruptcies, and the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s
44th president.

“There had been this false promise,” Edgarian said of the buildup to
the market crash. “Suddenly, in this country, resources felt limited
and people were forced to adjust. This was really a watershed moment
for America, a period of retrenching where we don’t know exactly
where we will end up.”


Edgarian’s characters – whether primary, secondary or tertiary –
are faced with challenges, some convulsive, some slight. “All of my
characters are at a moment of crisis when we meet them,” Edgarian
said. “Whatever they thought was going to be life is challenged,
and they’ve got to figure out a new dance.”

Edgarian in person is similar to Edgarian in print: The surface is
gilded and lovely, confident and balanced. Underneath, though, is a
sharper edge, a darker humor, a perpetual questioning. There is an
acknowledgement that life gets messy.

Edgarian only reluctantly talks about her “classically unhappy
childhood,” spent mostly in West Hartford, Conn. Her parents, Gerald
and Barbara Edgarian, both first-generation immigrants, were like
“gas and matches,” she says with a wry laugh. They divorced, and the
family moved around. She has two older siblings and a stepsister 17
years her junior.

“I’m that cliched under-the-covers-writing girl,” Edgarian said.

“Reading and writing is how I got through my childhood. I read
everything, from drama and Tolkien to Austen. The books were my
closest friends in my young years.”

After graduating from Stanford, Edgarian worked for a high-tech public
relations firm.

“Our early client was Microsoft when it was Bill Gates and a group of
guys,” Edgarian said. “It was Palo Alto 1984, when Silicon Valley
was just starting to explode.” Edgarian was writing everything
from technical manuals and news releases to speeches for venture

In 1986, Edgarian attended the Squaw Valley writers’ conference to
remind herself she was a “real writer.” It was there she met her
future husband, Tom Jenks, senior editor at Scribner’s. She had a
rough 75 pages of what would become her debut novel.

“He read it and wanted to publish it,” Edgarian said. “I said I would
finish it in six months. It was published in 1994.”

Online magazine

Between “Rise the Euphrates” and “Three Stages of Amazement,”
Jenks and Edgarian had two daughters, Lucy, 15, and Liv, 9 (Jenks’
daughter Riley is 25). The two taught creative writing and launched the
online literary magazine Narrative Magazine in 2003. The magazine’s
objective is to “advance the best of storytelling in the digital
age and provide a free modern library.” The site has more than 3,000
stories in its archive.

“We have a small core staff and 100 volunteers,” Edgarian said.

Putting in up to 60 hours a week on Narrative, Edgarian has had to
“steal time” for her own writing, often starting to work after the
kids were asleep. She said that she and Jenks – a former editor for
Esquire and the Paris Review – have no safety net, and “we make it
up day to day.”

San Francisco, her adopted home, is the place where “much of what’s
good in my life has happened,” Edgarian noted. She writes in her new
novel of its splendor and ethos, of its “foggy morals”: “The city had
been crushed three times by fires and earthquakes, and each time it
rose again. Lovely, whitewashed, beguiling, it was built by dreamers
on seven square miles of whim.”

As she reflected on “Three Stages of Amazement,” she recalled the line
from Maugham: “When male and female, after whatever vicissitudes you
like, are at last brought together they have fulfilled their biological
function and interest passes to the generation that is to come.”

It was precisely this stage – when the drive of marriage is fulfilled
and life sets in – that excited Edgarian. “I wanted to focus on
the realities of kids, career, money, grief and disappointment,” she
said. “With marriages that last, there is a continual renewal. You lose
each other and find each other. Your horizons may not be as expansive,
but it’s a time to go deeper. I really like this time of life.”

To read The Chronicle review of Carol Edgarian’s book “Three Stages
of Amazement,” go to

From: A. Papazian

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