Life Style

Want to Spice Up a Marriage? Switch Bodies.


Asked to choose flight or invisibility as a superpower — that old party game — how many novelists would choose flight, like captains of industry tend to do? Invisibility is, with little exception, the novelist’s superpower. Overhearing conversations. Entering bedrooms. Being, frankly, a little creepy.

“People Collide,” the second novel by Isle McElroy, grants an intriguing sort of invisibility to its main characters as well. They are young marrieds of 28 who’ve mysteriously switched bodies but not brains, as the mother and daughter did in the children’s classic and much-moviefied “Freaky Friday,” by Mary Rodgers, but with obviously far more transgressive potential.

We meet this couple in Bulgaria, where the wife, Elizabeth, has a fellowship teaching American culture to ungrateful teenagers. She’s the achiever and pacesetter in the pair, having been raised with high expectations by a therapist and a former photographer who now cooks for artists. Elizabeth’s present day version of settled domesticity has arrived as something of a surprise or compromise. “As a girl, she’d imagined adulthood full of lovers and accolades, a Simone de Beauvoir type of life, obtaining and discarding the Sartres and Algrens and Camuses of her generation between writing radical treatises that undermined bourgeois conventions,” an omniscient narrator explains dryly. “She intended to be free.”

The husband, Elijah, is more of a lost soul, having essentially been minded by a television screen after his father left his mother, with a tendency toward bulimia and at least one episode of infidelity in the column of minuses that all married people maintain. He and Elizabeth are both writers, but he lacks ambition for anything but leisure; he has “invited mediocrity into his life like a vacationing cousin.” Even his nickname, Eli, is subsumed by hers, “like a single step leading into a library.”

McElroy spits out similes as a slot machine does coins. Only a few feel counterfeit or dull: “her feelings sloshed inside of her like so much curdling milk.” Those are Elizabeth’s feelings while listening to Eli describe his childhood trauma on an early date. (They’re eating “a confusingly bland meal of chopped spinach over pita” prepared by beta-male Eli, thankfully no milk in sight.) She’s more secure and successful than he is by every measure — but an alpha woman is still a woman, thus second-ranked in much of the world’s eyes.

Forged in the Arizona desert in a ceremony attended by a dozen people who happened to be available on a Tuesday afternoon, their marriage has quickly become rote. (“We had settled into a successful sexual routine that guaranteed orgasms, as efficient as a pit crew changing a tire.”) Some couples spice things up with ballroom-dancing lessons; this one trades anatomies in an absurdist overnight event Eli calls The Incident. Perhaps because Elizabeth has been eager to ditch her teaching position, and because Eli is acquiescent by nature, they accept their changed circumstances with more gleeful curiosity than distress. “It was our first time all over again,” thinks Eli-in-Elizabeth’s-body during a graphic yet hilariously understated sex scene in a museum restroom in Paris, in the immediate aftermath of what seems to be the 2015 terrorist attacks.

“Is this weird for you?” Elizabeth-in-Eli’s-body asks.

“Of course it’s weird for me.”

With the help of online tutorials, he-as-she learns how to apply makeup, and finds him/herself suddenly coveting jewelry. (“I’d never wanted anything more than to be what these women were.”) She-as-he has found moving through the world much easier and is, quelle surprise, suddenly able to let her defenses down.

McElroy’s debut novel, “The Atmospherians,” told the clever but slightly insiderly and overfreighted tale of a wellness cult designed to cleanse men of their toxicity. “People Collide” is a more agile, universal book, with its title alluding to the randomness of human connection. It’s a variety of rom-com, really, that somewhat lost art. “Circumstances pinball people together,” the narrator declares. “This is called fate because chance is too scary a word.”

Perhaps no situation is more pinballish than that of in-laws, and McElroy’s unexpected digression into the psyche of Elizabeth’s mother, a frustrated writer herself who unknowingly condemns Eli for abandoning her daughter, is one of the novel’s great gifts.

McElroy, who lives in Brooklyn, seems to aspire as much to flight as to eavesdropping. “People Collide” has some bumpy, odd spots — what body doesn’t? — but its naturalness and ease with the most fundamental questions of existence make it a big project knocking around in a small package, portending even bigger projects ahead.

PEOPLE COLLIDE, by Isle McElroy | 256 pp. | HarperVia | $28.99

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