Audiobook review: “Big Swiss” is an affair to remember

Audiobook review: “Big Swiss” is an affair to remember

In her mid-40s, Greta realizes she’s been drifting through life. In response, she leaves her decade-long relationship, moves across the country into an infested house, takes up work as a sex therapist’s transcriber, and embarks on an affair with one of his clients, not bothering to mention the connection. We’re in the last wave of gen-X midlife crisis novels, and these slackers are not going gently.

Daily life with Greta and her housemate Simone, in fact, isn’t far removed from the rhythms of Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, wherein post-boomers hang out in an isolated house, swapping stories and half-assedly trying to make some sense of it all. In Jen Beagin’s new novel Big Swiss, the women live in an 18th-century upstate New York farmhouse where they smoke cigarettes, load the wood-burning stoves, and maintain an uneasy balance with the various bugs suffusing the structure.

Greta never claims to be a good person; in fact, she experiences chronic low-level suicidal ideation linked to her feelings of worthlessness. Readers inclined to judge Greta for acting on an opportunity to sleep with a woman whose therapy sessions she’s been privy to are essentially invited to fire away: we’ll never loathe Greta more than she loathes herself.

That all sounds very bleak, and it certainly is, but Beagin counts on us to keep turning pages — or listening — based on shared curiosity about the object of Greta’s mounting obsession. Flavia, or “Big Swiss” as Greta regards her after making a correct supposition about the European American’s physical stature, is a married gynecologist in her late 20s. By various rules of society, neither woman should be with the other. That gives their affair a tenuous quality that manifests, for both of them, as an extra kick of sexual electricity.

Greta’s mordant humor buoys the novel even as it delves into the traumatic events that have shaped these characters’ lives. The therapist character plays a surprisingly constructive role: despite Greta’s contempt for his dubious holistic practices, ultimately he emerges as a voice of reason, encouraging his clients to see themselves honestly but charitably. (His decision to hire a transcriptionist who’s not just human, but local, while he’s telling clients the task is handled by software, is a contrivance that’s never fully explained.)

In Hollywood, the setup would lead to a third-act payoff where Big Swiss discovers the deception and Greta pays the piper. It remains to be seen what producer Adam McKay will do with the forthcoming HBO series based on this novel, but Beagin takes her time to follow the story’s unwinding strands. Even amid shocking surprises, the novel’s focus remains on the unexpected bond between the two lovers — then, latterly, returns to the friendship between Greta and Simone.

The audiobook involves a cast of five, which helps to differentiate the therapy sessions Greta transcribes from her inner dialogue. The audiobook credits fail to specify which actors portray which characters, but together they have fun with Big Swiss’s Nico-esque rumble and Greta’s self-deprecating wit. Director Nikki Banks Maurer ensures that the narrators capture the character’s nuances and the text’s shifting tones: with a novel like this, autopilot performances would be disastrous.

Despite its crackling dialogue and meme-worthy moments, Big Swiss is ultimately a patient examination of two women’s relationship with each other, and with their disparate histories of trauma. The characters don’t ask for our sympathy, but Beagin ensures that by novel’s end they have it.

Jay Gabler