“The Half Moon: A Novel ” in the title of part-time Vineyarder Mary Beth Keane’s new novel is not in the night sky, but the bar in the small town of Gillam. It is as much a character in Keane’s story as the owners and protagonists, Malcolm and Jess. We meet the bar through Malcolm’s loving eyes as he drives up on a Friday evening just before a huge impending snowstorm, which will soon lock the town down for a week.
And we soon sense Malcolm is not doing well, as he moves through greeting people inside: “When he told them he was good, he was fine, as if he didn’t know what they could be referring to, he had to do a better job pretending when they asked him again not 10 seconds later.”
It’s soon apparent that Malcolm and Jess are not married happily ever after. In fact, they are not even together, Jess having left to take a “temporary” break to live in nearby New York City with a friend some months prior. Theirs had been a love match — he was a man who got increasingly attractive year after year, and she was a beautiful, intelligent lawyer working in the city. They met when Jess, having come back to their hometown for a weekend, visited the bar with friends when Malcolm was still only an employee.
Although warned by a law school friend that “with Malcolm, Jess’s boundaries would always be Gillam’s,” she plunges ahead, and finding themselves pregnant some months later, giddily in love, they marry. Jess not only suffers a miscarriage but seven brutal years of fertility treatments leading to naught, which wreak havoc on the relationship. Malcolm, reflecting on their decision to finally give up, says, “But they’d stopped all that. The bruises on her belly faded … He thought, at first, they’d go right back to the way they were before. He thought she’d be stopping by the bar again to surprise him. He thought she’d start grinning at him again, looking at him like she knew a juicy secret. It’ll take a while, he told himself, have patience. But then she was gone.”
The failed pregnancies weren’t the only stress on the marriage, but also the fact that Malcolm had bought the bar without consulting Jess or contacting a lawyer, which has ramifications later on.
We are by Malcolm’s side when his best friends inform him that, in fact, Jess had been having an affair with someone else in town; Neil, a divorced man with kids of his own, possibly offering the allure of a ready-made family.
We also learn that the Half Moon is failing, and Malcolm is losing the battle to try and keep up payments to Hugh, the former owner, who roped him into a bad deal. Hugh’s henchman is threatening Malcolm even amid a week of severe storms that descend, shutting off power and heat to the entire region, so that everyone has to shelter in place — freezing and making do with what food they can scrounge up.
Just to keep things interesting, Malcolm gets caught up in a police investigation when one of the bar’s patrons, who seems to have been involved in nefarious financial affairs, goes missing. Keane also builds in a host of interesting characters in Jess and Malcolm’s orbit of friends and family, as well as bar patrons and employees.
Over the course of the book, we learn the ins and outs of Jess and Malcolm’s journey through flashbacks, what happened to get them to where they are now, and then the nearly weeklong interval of the blizzard, in which we discover what will happen in their relationship, and whether the Half Moon can be saved.
With growing momentum, Keane throws in some twists and turns in the latter part of the story, and skillfully keeps us guessing all the way to the end.
“The Half Moon” by Mary Beth Keane, available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes. Mary Beth Keane will be signing books at the Edgartown Bookstore on May 27, from 2 to 4 pm.