10/12/2015 09:35 am ET Updated Oct 12, 2015

The Bottom Line: 'The Clasp' By Sloane Crosley

The Clasp is an ambitious, lovely work that ultimately fails under the weight of its parts.
Farrar, Straus

In the writerly world, “working on a novel” is almost a punchline. We’re all working on a novel, whether we’re someone who definitely should, like Gillian Flynn, or someone who should probably stick with her day job, like Ayelet Waldman.

Full disclosure: I fall into the latter category. And while Sloane Crosley’s fiction debut far surpasses any novel I’ve ever pondered working on, as I read, I wondered if she fits the second descriptor as well.

Crosley’s The Clasp, a caper mixed with a coming-of-age tale mixed with a humor essay about the romantic travails of a 30-ish New Yorker, stars three college friends finally facing their complicated relationships with each other a decade too late. Victor, a data scientist who was recently laid off from his mediocre job, has been masochistically in love with Kezia since college. Kezia, a pale, shapely blonde who’s channeled her dream of becoming a jeweler into being the right-hand woman of an eccentric, avant-garde designer, has felt guilty about rejecting Victor since college -- but meanwhile, she’s pining for Nathaniel. Nathaniel, an easily attractive and self-absorbed writer, has moved to L.A. for a slightly successful career as a screenwriter and flings with gorgeous actresses. Kezia is barely on his radar.

Reunited at the wedding of an old college pal, these painful dynamics soon reassert themselves. Frustrated, Victor wanders through the groom’s family home, where the wedding is taking place, finding himself in the bedroom of the groom’s glamorous German mother. Drunk and maudlin, he passes out. When he wakes up, she’s there, surprised but surprisingly understanding of his presence and the fact that he’d clearly been trying unsuccessfully to open the drawers of her jewelry chest before he fell asleep.

Amused, she unlocks it for him with a hidden key -- and shows him her collection of jewels, as well as a drawing of a particularly stunning necklace. She tells him the drawing was given to her by her aunt, with whom she’d been staying in France during her parents’ divorce. The drawing, she’d been told, had been stolen for her aunt by a German soldier who found it with the actual necklace in a French chateau during World War II. Victor neatly squirrels away the illustration, which fascinates him, and he soon throws his unoccupied time into finding the necklace, quickly concluding it must be the starring accessory of the Guy de Maupassant story “The Necklace.”

When Victor disappears on a quest to Maupassant’s family home to find the real necklace, Kezia is frantic and convinces Nathaniel to join her as she searches for him in France. Fortuitously, she’s also been sent on a mission from her demanding boss, who needs new enamel clasps from a French artisan, strong enough to bear the weight of her new blockbuster necklace. As Kezia tries to solve the clasp crisis -- the high breakage rate for the first set of clasps has been a PR disaster -- she also stumbles separately onto clues as to the necklace’s true identity and location, sending her and Nathaniel onto an intersecting path with their old friend.

There's a hastiness to the whole of Crosley's debut, and a creakiness that belies the jaunty, mischievous tone.

As these above paragraphs (which leave out numerous twists and turns) suggest, The Clasp is long on plot, fortuitous coincidence and outlandish scenarios. As Crosley labors to fit together an homage to Guy de Maupassant, a comic lampooning of the mutually destructive dynamics of old college friends, a weary examination of the vagaries of romance and the thrill of a suspense caper, she doesn’t quite manage to make the seams disappear. 

That's not to say that she isn't a delightful writer. Snort-out-loud moments are rare in literary fiction, and The Clasp features a fair number. Crosley's prose, polished and original without being showy, carries the narrative along pleasantly. 

Yet there's a hastiness to the whole of Crosley's debut, and a creakiness that belies the jaunty, mischievous tone. The whole of the novel seems to be spent whiplashing from one reveal to the next and shoehorning in tenuous plot justifications for unlikely events. The adventure hunt aspect of the story never registers as genuinely compelling, while it drowns out any opportunity for readers to fully connect with the human elements at play. Victor's sad-sack attitude and stagnating life quickly dissolve into side notes to his quixotic trip to France; Kezia's just a long-suffering girl with a taste for men who are bad for her; Nathaniel's too into himself. Eventually they each grow, but their transformations are abrupt and inexplicable. With character sketches so shallow, any alteration seems to show not hidden human depths, but the all-too-obvious puppet strings of their creator.  

Crosley's gift as a writer goes without saying -- her success as an essayist speaks for itself. The transition into fiction can be a daunting one, and she didn't falter at the prospect of a complexly plotted caper. The Clasp's flaws, in the end, are the same as the flaws in the titular clasp itself: It's lovely, but not quite strong enough to support all of its parts. 

The Bottom Line:

Much like the faulty enamel clasp at the heart of the narrative, The Clasp is an ambitious, lovely work that ultimately fails under the weight of its parts. 

What other reviewers think:

Slate: "In a blog post for Lit Hub, Crosley revealed that she and her editor cut more than 250 pages from The Clasp before sending it to press. A reader feels that lost poundage, feels the breezy lightness of the final version straining to become something else, as when Victor summarizes his European adventure in a sentence whose oracular weight is not quite earned."

Publishers Weekly: "Victor’s harebrained attempts at tracking the necklace down, culminating in a French chateau break-in with a mildly concerned Kezia and Nathaniel in hot pursuit, make not only for fun reading but hint at the surprisingly poignant extent of just how far old acquaintances will go to save one another’s hides."

The New York Times Book Review: "Sloane Crosley’s first novel [is] a shrewd ­exploration of the modern-day late-quarter-life crisis, disguised as a ­caper."

Who wrote it?

Sloane Crosley has published two popular collections of humorous personal essays, I Was Told There’d Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number. The Clasp is her debut novel.  

Who will read it?

Readers who enjoy light, humorous fiction. Fans of Sloane Crosley's essays.

Opening lines:

“At first they watched the rain from inside the tent and then they watched it come inside the tent. A stone path extended from the house to the shore. When the shuttle buses arrived, the stones were opaque. Now they were translucent, the kind of wet that made it difficult to imagine them ever being dry again. Lightning struck the surface of the ocean and a curtain of hot wind swayed inward at their feet, pushing detached bouquet petals in a row. Victor took a step back. These were his only nice shoes.” 

Notable passage:

"Kezia examined the message. The watch enameler could not replicate the clasps exactly but she could get close enough. And she could do it within Rachel's time frame. It would save them both the trouble of Kezia getting on a plane and pleading her case to an ornery Frenchman. And she knew she could talk Rachel into 'close enough.' It was a minor miracle. But all Kezia could picture was the look on Victor's face as he whispered to her on the beach about an invisible French necklace. Five seconds ago, he said he was fine. She should believe him. He was a grown-up. If he said he was fine, he was fine.

"She crumpled the message and threw it in the trash."

The Clasp

by Sloane Crosley

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.00

Published October 6, 2015

The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

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