I had never heard of Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan until I saw the trailer for the Tom Ford film, Nocturnal Animals. Thoroughly intrigued by the preview, I soon discovered that Tom Ford’s most recent foray into cinema was inspired by the aforementioned novel. As I retain an irrational sense that I must always read the book before seeing the movie, I set myself the task of accomplishing just this, which is how I found myself recently engulfed in the harrowing narrative of Tony and Susan.
The story opens on Susan Morrow, the story’s protagonist, as she receives a book manuscript from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield, accompanied by a note asking her opinion. Susan is a woman in her late 40s who teaches English at a local college. Living in the suburbs of Chicago with her second husband, Arnold, and three children, Susan hasn’t had contact with her first husband Edward in 25 years, prior to receiving his manuscript.
She is surprised by the request, but as she starts to read the Edward’s story, entitled Nocturnal Animals, she quickly becomes engrossed in it. Centered around a middle-aged college professor named Tony Hastings, Nocturnal Animals begins with a terrifying chain of events that irrevocably changes Tony’s life and leads him down a path to face his demons.
Susan’s own story acts as a frame narrative for Nocturnal Animals. As a reader, you follow Tony’s story through Susan, who gives voice to many of the same emotions and questions you are likely to ask yourself as you read along.
The style of prose can be a bit confounding in the beginning, as it was for me. The fluidity of thoughts into dialogue, fragments into sentences, imaginings into reality was a bit too confusing as I was starting out, just trying to familiarize myself with the characters and the settings. As I read on, however, I really began to enjoy the style and in moments when the plot might otherwise have dragged on, the puzzle-like prose allowed the story to progress more swiftly.
The characters are also decently developed, but Tony, Susan, and Edward all come across starkly clinical, and identically so, which I found strange. For instance, although Susan has three children they seem wholly unimportant to her life. In fact, when I began reading this book, I often confused the names of her dogs with the names of her children, and could just barely begin to differentiate between them based on the context.
On a larger scale, as Tony Hastings experiences a profound tragedy, he is understandably devastated, but at the same time appears almost indifferent. While I’m sure this reaction is a coping mechanism for many people, I think Wright employs this emotional response, more so, to meditate on the reactions we are expected to produce. In the same way, making Susan’s children and pets almost interchangeable, conveys that she herself likely does not see much difference between them, as a commentary on socially contrived notions of motherhood.
A large part of the book’s subtext, in fact, is focused on deconstructing and analyzing social expectations relating to gender, family, and class stratification. My thinking is that making the primary characters (Tony and Susan) emotionally detached from most of what happens allows Wright to reflect more deeply on how these conditioned roles affect our behavior.
For Susan, most of this relates to her roles as wife and mother, roles she seems to embody successfully, but unhappily. For Tony this relates to his position as a man of a certain class position. In fact, almost all of his reactions to important events come to have some bearing on his manhood in different ways.
I enjoyed this aspect the most and found it applied well to Tony’s story and understanding his character arc. This is not to say that I necessarily liked Tony as a character, in fact, I found him to be quite strange. But I wouldn’t have been able to relate to him at all if not for Wright’s insightful examination. Still, I wished that Wright would have applied the same level of scrutiny to Susan’s character, whom I was really much more interested in.
Susan does reflect on her marriages to both Edward and Arnold, considering her role within each and how she is in turn shaped by the expectations imposed on her in each relationship. In doing so, however, she does not actually reach any conclusions about herself or her current situation.
The reader is given the sense that Susan is unhappy in her life, and possibly that some change is coming, to mirror the changes taking place in Tony’s life, who becomes a foil for Susan and her character’s trajectory. While Tony’s story reaches a chilling denouement, preceded by pensive self-reflection, however, Susan’s story feels like it leads nowhere new. She essentially ends up back where she started, only now more resigned to her life than before.
Throughout the book Susan also continuously refers to an underlying fear she has, but has trouble defining it and therefore cannot fully understand the feeling herself. I do wish this fear would be have been brought to the fore and analyzed a little more explicitly as I was really interested in what might impart about Susan.
In this one regard I didn’t enjoy the ambiguity of the language and found it actually hindered this aspect of plot development. By the same measure I suppose the loose language did also make Susan’s fears seem more salacious. But, to build up an intriguing, potential plot twist, only to let it peter out in the conclusion is disappointing.
Based on other reviews I’ve read, the public opinion on this book is quite divided. Despite the lack of consensus, I will say that I recommend this book to anyone looking for a quick and interesting read. It may not be your favorite book, but it will provoke some interesting analysis.
My one point of caution that there are difficult subjects discussed in the book (spoiler alert: rape and murder are prominent themes). For those who are uncomfortable reading about these topics or, worse, may be triggered by these topics, I would advise against reading this book, as it’s not worth the distress to one’s mental wellbeing.
Now that I’m finished I suppose it’s about time I turn to the movie and see how it compares. I hear there are some points of difference that may pique my interest.
Trailer for Nocturnal Animals