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Book review: The Parallel Apartments by Bill Cotter

Strange plot points make way for truths behind confusing, human moments in Cotter's follow-up to Fever Chart

Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

By Bill Cotter. McSweeney's, $25.

Bill Cotter’s sophomore novel starts in 2004 New York City, as 34-year-old protagonist Justine Moppett learns she is pregnant by a man she despises. Soon after, she meets her birth mother for the first time, in a Dunkin’ Donuts, and the ensuing conversation yields unsettling information about her adoptive family. These revelations spur an odyssey, one marked by disturbing events, in which babies are born, mass killings take place in motel rooms, and copious amounts of Dr Pepper are consumed.

Apartments produces anxiety but ultimately rewards tribulation, recalling at times Updike’s capacity for wringing both pathos and humor from vulnerable circumstances. Cotter’s characters are both endearing and cringe-inducingly maladroit, and he does his best work in the awkwardness created by mishandled moments of human frailty. As the matchmaking hermaphrodites, bloviating professors and shopaholic madames materialize, and as the journey becomes more unsettling, Cotter’s stunningly constructed prose provides comfort from the mayhem. Every shudder is well worth joining Justine, as she goes through the past, darkly.