I’ve been waiting my whole life to be seen like that
It’s the early 1980s and Cress Hartley is ready to write her doctoral dissertation and begin her life. Distracted and unmotivated, Cress retreats to her parents’ vacation home in the California mountains in order to focus and take advantage of the peace and quiet. But Cress soon learns that the mountains have their own unique distractions – namely men, booze, and nature.
As Cress says, being young and single in such an isolated place is a form of “public service,” and she soon gains the attention of several local men who are curious and enamored by Cress’s “fish out of water” situation. After months of flirting and a few harmless sexual encounters with a local bartender, Cress falls into the arms of Quinn – an older, married man who is grieving the death of his father and the decline of his marriage. Within a couple months, Cress and Quinn enter into a full-blown affair, and Cress’s life as a student, writer, and researcher falls further by the wayside.
While every small town is unique in its own way, they all seem to share an affinity for gossip, and in such a secluded place, news travels fast. What began as a few sexual encounters quickly blossoms into obsession for Cress and Quinn, and the locals can no longer turn a blind eye to such blatant adultery. Cress never wanted to destroy a marriage or soil her reputation, but the draw of forbidden love is too strong to resist, and her temporary escape into the mountains slowly turns into an extremely complicated and messy affair with lifelong consequences.
While Off Course seems to begin as a coming-of-age type of story, the novel ultimately explores the decisions we make out of discontentment and their immediate and delayed consequences. Plenty of novels evaluate scenarios of adulterous affairs, but Huneven’s novel is a sober and uncomfortably realistic account of extramarital obsession and the desire to fulfill basic needs of human connection, love, friendship, and trust. Entombed by passion and promises, Cress and Quinn enter into dangerous and uncharted emotional territory, and while their affair feels surreal and visceral at first, the repercussions are very real and extremely painful.
Tender, practical, and sincere, Off Course is a haunting novel with unlikely protagonists. You may not sympathize with Cress and Quinn’s affair, but readers will surely be awestruck by Huneven’s ability to capture the elusive inconsistencies of passion, longing, heartbreak, distraction and desire.
By Michelle Huneven
Sarah Crichton Books