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Review: ‘A Novel Obsession’ is alluring, unsettling, meta

March 18, 2022 GMT
This cover image released by Dutton shows "A Novel Obsession" by Caitlin Barasch. (Dutton via AP)
This cover image released by Dutton shows "A Novel Obsession" by Caitlin Barasch. (Dutton via AP)
This cover image released by Dutton shows "A Novel Obsession" by Caitlin Barasch. (Dutton via AP)
This cover image released by Dutton shows "A Novel Obsession" by Caitlin Barasch. (Dutton via AP)
This cover image released by Dutton shows "A Novel Obsession" by Caitlin Barasch. (Dutton via AP)

“A Novel Obsession” by Caitlin Barasch (Dutton)

Friendship, love, jealousy, obsession. They seem distinct enough, but what happens when these experiences begin to blend together?

Caitlin Barasch’s debut meta-novel, “A Novel Obsession,” is a chaotic exploration of these relationships and the way art blurs the line between them.

Naomi Ackerman is on the cusp of 25 and still hasn’t written her first novel, to the disappointment of her rapidly aging, writerly grandmother. Aside from a risqué pseudo-relationship that ended years ago, Naomi doesn’t have anything to write about.

Convinced that a proper boyfriend-girlfriend experience will give her the perspective she needs, Naomi finds Caleb — a smart, sweet man who provides a healthy relationship. But where’s the inspiration in domestic stability?

When Caleb mentions that his ex-girlfriend tried contacting him, Naomi’s natural curiosity quickly turns into obsession, spiraling from casual internet searches to stakeouts. Her excuse: Rosemary will be the inspiration Naomi’s been lacking for her book.

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It’s simply character research, all in the name of the art of writing, but the more Naomi learns about Rosemary, the more of her own repressed demons she must confront.

Surface-level, Naomi’s annoying, self-centered and completely caught in her own narrative. But she’s also conflicted, round and relatable. She’s scared of death and the way people avoid those who are dying, even while she herself does this to her Grammie. She’s proud of her family and their successes but also jealous. Overall, she’s empty and searching for something to fill her void.

The most relatable part of Naomi, though, is her obsession with Rosemary. Barasch makes Caleb’s ex the most alluring, interesting person you wish you didn’t want to know.

Barasch has created a nesting doll of a novel: It’s a fictional story of a writer writing a fictional story — in which she sometimes has to write a fake version of her novel — written by a real fiction writer whose life bears many striking resemblances to the real-life novel.

“A Novel Obsession” is unsettling, but surely that’s what a reader wants when they pick up a novel about a woman stalking her boyfriend’s ex. Barasch has a talent for balancing discomfort and empathy, pushing the reader away and pulling them right back. It’s hard to confidently enjoy a book when it feels like doing so enables unhinged behavior for the sake of art and entertainment, but the characters are emotionally engaging, beckoning you to rubberneck the inevitable train wreck.

Splendidly rich descriptions and unexplored queer undertones create unrequited anticipation throughout the novel. Like Naomi, I wondered, “Where can you possibly go from here to have a satisfying ending?” The novel’s vague hint at resolution answers, “You don’t.”