It’s a bright, unlikely moment: the Berlin wall is crumbling, the Soviet Union is toppling. Everywhere nations and people break long-held silences to free themselves from the deformitive power of secrets–only to grapple with surprising, complex consequences.
Marta Byrd, an unsuccessful painter in upstate New York, is among them. She’s a paradox, formidably intelligent and perceptive on the one hand, and capable of spectacular blindness and bad choices on the other. When she confronts her charming father with his abusive history, she finds her open accusations threaten her relationships with her brother and sisters. She finds herself alone in her struggle to divorce her husband, whose violence recently hospitalized her.
On the way home from facing her family, she meets Hungarian-born photojournalist Kornel Nagy on a Washington commuter train. Kornel plans to fly to Europe to photograph the fall of the Soviet Union as he has documented world events all his life, but his and Marta’s attraction crackles, and delays him in New York despite Marta’s inner turmoil and occasional self-protective fury. Their subsequent romance lurches from museums to restaurants, from sometimes-fractured science to half-remembered songs and movies, from politics to war, from arguing over money to a claw foot tub–and Kornel’s own deep secret.
Marta’s husband Farley refuses to go away, and becomes more and more dangerous. Determined to keep Kornel out of the mess in order to protect the possibility of a loving future, Marta tries to make sense of her past. The institutions she’s been taught to trust–family, religion, marriage, medicine, and finally, law–reveal their inadequacies and become objects of satire. Her life careens from a former acquaintance’s invitation to move in with him to take care of his eleven Bichons Frisees to the sight of her non-fisherman, banker husband affecting a zany fishing hat decorated with lures and flies to a meeting with her irritable, big name attorney nearly dwarfed by his desk.
But Kornel’s worldly wisdom and sense of the absurd support her resolve. She goes to Farley’s hospital room after he has killed her cat and shot himself as well as a policeman, braves the shocking extremity of his self-indulgent, morbid imagination, and makes a life-changing decision.