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Book review: Marcy Dermansky's Bad Marie 

Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky (Harper Perennial, 212 pages, $13.99).

Marie, the protagonist of Marcy Dermansky's witty, disturbing new novel, is almost completely unlikable, and yet stands out as one of the more interesting characters in recent fiction. Creating a dreadful, amoral central character who can also capture readers' interest, and even fascinate them, is a tall order for even a very experienced writer. Dermansky has a mere two novels under her belt (her first was the acclaimed Twins) and has spent most of her career writing film reviews and short stories; she gambled on an "unlikable narrator" anyway, and luckily for readers, hit the jackpot.

Bad Marie is the fairly short, fast-moving tale of a woman whose consuming self-absorption (one reviewer has described Marie as "all id") leads her to make one disastrous decision after another, wrecking marriages, memories and lives along the way. Marie is undeniably a terrible, twisted kind of person — the kind who would take advantage of an old friend for monetary gain, seduce the friend's husband, then run off with him and a two-year-old child to Paris, without letting the friend know where they've gone, and then, well, that's enough for now. I don't want to spoil the rest of the book, which continues at a fast clip in multiple locations, driven by enough destructive decisions from Marie to make the term "plot twist" seem flat.

Despite Marie's headlong rush toward the abyss, Dermansky imbues her with enough humanity to make her character's oddly reason-free life very compelling. Before you know it, the book becomes a skillfully paced page-turner. Yes, Marie ruins others' lives without a glance backward, but her love for the kidnapped child is certain and steady and her insights are at times right on the money. On top of that, her calamities are often not only damaging, but weirdly hilarious — which, of course, gives the book an even more outlandish aura.

As the action shifts from New York to Paris and to other locations, Marie is so self-focused and socially obtuse, she becomes a near-tragic figure. Her choices even start to seem like the inevitable mistakes of an essentially naïve person. Except that ... she isn't naïve; she's a narrow-minded, vengeful conniver with a heart of coal — which is why she's only nearly tragic. Yet Marie and the novel named after her are, in a sense, subversive — because, in the end, this tale of thoughtless waste and destruction also happens to be the story of a lost soul trying with all her might to find somewhere she can be happy, no matter the cost. Dermansky's novel is nothing if not captivating.

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