By Kate Russo
We find ourselves in the first wave of pre-pandemic fiction. Here come the narratives full of indoor scenes, maskless interactions and group coughing fits. Kate Russo’s breezy debut, “Super Host,” is one such novel, written long before the words “super” and “host” had everyday epidemiological associations.
But this story of middle-aged Bennett Driscoll, a washed-up artist forced to rent out his lavish London home (the shower “has two rainfall shower heads and enough room to conduct an orchestra”) to a series of hapless women, situates itself even further back in time. At its best, it’s reminiscent of the early-aughts romps done to great commercial effect by Nick Hornby and Plum Sykes, and even of the tidy plotting executed by the author’s father, Richard Russo.
“Super Host” is set in a fairy tale of London, chock-a-block with meet-cutes and grocery store cashiers who offer to lend their copy of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to first-time customers. But Bennett’s own life is not quite so dreamy. His thinly sketched ex-wife, Eliza (she loved ultimatums), could no longer “stand still” with him and has run off to America, leaving Bennett to fend for himself and his teenage daughter, a St. Martin’s student who paints large-scale vaginas (not her own, much to our hero’s relief).
[ Read an excerpt from “Super Host.” ]
Bennett also used to paint nudes, which sold for healthy sums, but his career has gone downhill since his fruit period. Now he’s relocated himself to the garden studio, where he struggles for relevance, trying not to smother romantic and professional opportunities with desperation. One would think Russo’s empathy for a straight attractive white man with a newfound obsession with rap and an affinity for existential spirals would not work, but it’s one of the novel’s sweeter spots: “The older he gets, the more impossible it becomes to live in the present.”
The same cannot be said for her female characters. Bennett will be visited by four archetypal women, two American, two British. In addition to being native English-speakers, every woman in this novel is coincidentally affiliated with the arts or has aspirations to be so. The first is Alicia, a Sandra Dee in sensible footwear who attended the London School of Economics and is now employed by Virtual Paddle, an online auction house in New York. She talked her friends into a group trip but they have flaked, citing her unhealthy obsession with the British boyfriend who dumped her five years ago. Alicia has not had sex or smoked a cigarette since. (The world of “Super Host” is anodyne and puritanical enough to make Richard Curtis look like Irvine Welsh.)
Alicia spends her days meandering down memory lane. Upon realizing that none of her friends actually like her, she deletes them all from Facebook (the only social media platform used throughout, a tic that feels demographically askew). When a drunken stranger hits on Alicia outside a pub, she walks away but then returns in a cloud of Pollyanna doom: “All she’d meant to do was make a friend in a pub, have a laugh, maybe a snog.” There’s a good detail a few pages later (after a sexual assault in an alley) when she realizes she’s lost her hair tie and desperately wants it back. This is the last we hear of Alicia.
Next comes Emma, an O.C.D.-afflicted alum of the Rhode Island School of Design who is the most finely drawn of the bunch. Literally. While her British husband is off chasing down his drug-addicted brother, Emma traces the floorboards in the bedroom with colored pencils. In the funniest setup in the novel, she writes down what she perceives to be facts (“Fact: Bennett is watching me”) and puts them in a jar while becoming obsessed with the idea that her host has entered the house and moved an avocado.
Bennett’s relationship with Emma, a somewhat inexplicable war of attrition, is also the most realistic. He resentfully watches Emma and her husband “eating granola at the kitchen island, staring at their phones without saying a word to each other.” Furthermore, these pages feature some of Russo’s most vivid writing because Emma is, like Bennett and like Russo herself, a visual artist. The casual use of proper names (the Turner Prize, the White Cube) feels natural, as do the novel’s frequent observations about the business: “There’s very little art in the art world,” Alicia notes. Then there’s Russo’s appreciation for color: “juniper green, ultramarine blue, orange glaze, pink carmine and raw umber.”
During Emma’s section of the novel, Bennett meets Claire, a bartender in her early 40s. Claire has a body for objectification and a two-track mind: She’s an oenophile with dreams of opening a bookstore. This might be tough, since she has apparently never left the bar before and is bowled over (“Blimey”) by the marble in the upscale restaurant where she and Bennett have their first date. “They don’t have a lot in common,” Bennett notes, “except a deep need for companionship.” Still, Claire is good for him. Not only does she get Bennett jogging and painting nudes again, she challenges him. “Don’t turn this around on me,” she says during a fight, which causes low-bar Bennett to conclude: “Damn, she must be smart.”
Finally, there’s Kirstie, who at first reminds Bennett of his ex-wife because she drives the same car. (For someone who used to paint them, Bennett’s only frame of reference for women seems to be the ones in his immediate orbit.) Kirstie is a divorcée with zebra-print luggage who thinks “most women don’t know the difference between a compliment and an insult anymore.” She starts weeping upon arrival. She demands Bennett go house-hunting and have dinner with her, becoming infuriated with him for not “asking the correct questions,” feeling jealous that Bennett surely gives his girlfriend and daughter “more attention than he’s giving her right now.” When she was younger, Kirstie wanted to design her own hotel but got waylaid by marrying a television actor who would later try to choke her on their balcony. Bennett nearly leaves Claire for her.
One of the things that make Emma the most digestible of the four is that Russo’s portrayal of her is more logically imitative of her personality. Multiple paragraphs about an avocado align with an O.C.D. character and are less tiresome than, say, desultory Alicia, name-checking the streets of London. Another is that Emma’s trauma comes off as less clumsy within a lighthearted novel, versus attempted rape and even attempted murder. Even before their stories of abuse are unfurled, these women are apt to label their own thoughts “selfish” or “sexist,” flip assignations because the tone of the narrative doesn’t allow for the parsing of such issues. Sometimes this passes without incident, sometimes it’s a problem. Are we to think Kirstie’s children are vile when they suggest she “must have done something” to make her husband angry? (“Why do you always egg him on?”) Or, like Kirstie, are we meant to have no reaction, moving onto the next chapter with a kind of Hallmark-y determinism?
The guest’s story lines are unresolved, which would have been a more successful comment on the nature of transient interactions if Russo hadn’t ceded half the novel to these women’s perspectives and detailed back stories. Still, to write with such care about them is no easy feat. Many authors, debut and seasoned alike, must resist the urge to make all their characters sound too identical, too clever by half, too capable of writing a novel. Here, even when the characters feel paint-by-numbers, the lasting impression is of them as separate people.
The downside of populating a story this way is that “Super Host” does not get everything it wants. It does not get to be a laugh-out-loud book or a real exploration of loneliness. But it is brimming with Russo’s pure affection for her creation. Even Bennett, whose major malfunction is indecision, is as proactive as he can be without starting from scratch. He’s an involved father, he’s submitting a painting to the Royal Academy Summer Show, he’s dutifully tending to his libido. Despite the cracks in the walls, “Super Host” is a pleasant stay, a reminder that you never know what goes on behind closed doors, even when they’re your own.
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