Loneliness can turn ugly people into soul mates and landscapes into best friends. Such is the affliction driving the three main characters of Clearcut, Nina Shengold's atmospheric yet one-dimensional debut novel. It's what motivates Earley to pick up a hitchhiker named Reed, and the pair to find Zan, a nomadic, spunky woman running from her past.
And loneliness is what brings these three together in a twisting love triangle. Earley falls for Reed's girlfriend, Zan, who insists on an open relationship. Then violence erupts after a nosy neighbor discovers the threesome's unconventional arrangement.
Characterization beyond cliché is quickly scrapped, as in the following exchange that occurs after Earley discovers that Zan ran away from home in her teens:
"Sixteen in Mexico. What did you do about money?"
"I lived," said Zan. She picked up Reed's beer bottle, draining the dregs. Earley waited for her to say more, but she didn't.
Just as well. While one purposefully one-dimensional character can be a sexy, intriguing way to advance a plot, a novel stocked only with such characters-the rough-living Earley, the sensitive-and-intelligent Reed, the vivacious-yet-vulnerable Zan-falls flat.
Shengold's background as a playwright may explain her overuse of dialogue or lack of subplots; while this terseness makes for steady pacing, it cheats Clearcut of the opportunity to explore the characters through any of the ways that distinguish a novel from a play.
The most substantial character in Clearcut is the small town of Forks, Wash., and the beautifully wrought Pacific Northwest landscape itself emerges with such life that even the cedars and rivers seem to breathe on their own. By the end of the novel, the characters' attraction to each other remains inexplicable, yet readers will feel an affinity for Shengold's hopelessly romantic descriptions and fall in love with the novel's lush setting.