Review of Big Swiss by Jen Beagin
Jen Beagin's literary fiction novel is consistently bizarre, at times base, and often darkly funny as her characters alternately dive into and avoid facing the implications of their past traumas, stunted emotional states, vulnerabilities, lies, and sexual exploration.
Greta sits in her 1700s Dutch farmhouse in Hudson, New York transcribing sessions for a local New Age sex coach (his credentials are suspect) who calls himself Om.
She begins to fall for a stoic female client Greta affectionately thinks of as Big Swiss (Greta gathers from Om's awkwardly admiring chatter that the client is tall and originally from Switzerland).
The woman's matter-of-fact approach to life and her graceful ability to cope with her significant past trauma and dark history inspires Greta, who struggles to deal with her own trauma and past.
When Greta recognizes Big Swiss's voice at the dog park and the two accidentally meet, Greta panics and lies about her name and her profession, and the two begin a passionate affair.
Greta dives into her affair with Big Swiss, and their sex life is full of unflinching detail about desire, repulsions, particular personal requirements for satisfaction, awkward logistics of sex and of finding places to have sex, and their bodies' unique features and each other's obsessions with them.
Meanwhile, everything else Greta's life seems to symbolize her brokenness. The home she shares with eccentric Sabine is returning to the wild as various creatures take it over, sometimes in revolting fashion; her body is increasingly unreliable and uncomfortable (with bleeding, itching, and other problems building as the story progresses); and she engages in what may turn out to be either full-fledged denial or what may turn out to be a circuitous route to facing her past traumas and taking responsibility for her impulsive decision-making and the repercussions of her committedly closed-off emotional state.
Twisted humor and awkwardness constantly underlie the situation as Greta continues regularly listening to and transcribing Om's confidential sessions with Big Swiss, then not very convincingly pretending she was previously unaware of Big Swiss's revelations when Big Swiss is vulnerable enough to share them with Greta in person.
Greta's lies and her inability to be open with Big Swiss are threatening to upend the truest connection she's known--yet the relationship is based upon a web of lies from both women. Big Swiss is lying to her husband by not admitting her affair, while Greta is lying to Big Swiss about her own biographic information and also omitting any mention of her secret knowledge of Big Swiss. Yet in a twisted fashion, these lies seem to free her to be honest about everything else. Despite Greta's secrets, she is as emotionally open and honest as she's ever been.
The dialogue is witty, odd, and often both cringe-inducing and darkly funny. Some of the metaphors felt heavily hammered home, but I didn't mind. I was intrigued by the intersection of the women's personalities and lives, and Beagin kept me consistently hooked with this offbeat novel.
I received an audiobook edition of this book, published February 7, courtesy of Libro.fm and Simon & Schuster Audio.
The story was wonderfully narrated by Rebecca Lowman, Carlotta Brentan, Stephen Graybill, Joy Osmanski, and Matt Pittenger.
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Jen Beagin is also the author of Pretend I'm Dead and Vacuum in the Dark.