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Monday, February 11, 2019

Captives by Debra Jo Immergut

Ecco, 288 pages, $26.99 (c2018)

Right off the bat I have to say that “Captives” suffered in contrast to “The Mars Room.” Both are about women serving long sentences in prison for murder. Both books have male characters who have awkward personalities. Both of the main characters are also victims of their own weaknesses and of others’. There is no vote or poll or contest, but “The Mars Room” wins anyway. Despite my prejudice, “Captives” has a lot to offer.

Miranda Greene, or “M,” as the awkward male personality in “Captives” nicknames her, is in her early thirties. Prison is horrid but Miranda has made a few friends, eccentric or vulnerable women like her. Their days are limiting and tedious. Miranda cannot stand the thought of serving her fifty-two year sentence, despite assurances from her family that legal appeals are progressing. She decides to take her own life and makes an appointment with one of the prison psychologists to acquire access to enough pills to do that.

The psychologist immediately recognizes Miranda. Frank Lundquist feels he has already failed as a psychologist in the outside world. The prison job is, for him, the lowest of the low, but he is still trying his best. Miranda was the girl of his dreams in high school, as it turns out. He was too awkward and shy to do anything about it; she was popular and dated a jock. Nevertheless, he spied on her, followed her around, watched her perform from a distance. Creepy, much? Frank’s marriage has failed, all he has is a cat waiting at home for him, his brother is an addict, his father is a world famous psychologist in whose shadow Frank is flailing. Frank’s world is becoming increasingly smaller.

When Frank meets Miranda again, fireworks go off. When Miranda meets Frank again, bupkis happens.

Frank should excuse himself from treating her, but of course that doesn’t happen. Although “Captives” is Miranda’s story, Frank is another kind of captive and his intrusion must be accepted. He is first an unwitting victim, then after throwing his professional scruples aside, he is complicit.

Debra Jo Immergut is a victim of Rachel Kushner’s excellence. Immergut’s writing is good, but it lacks Kushner’s oomph. Miranda is not as compelling a character as Kushner’s Romy Leslie Hall. (Also, and this is not Immergut’s fault, the cover of “Captives” is very misleading.)

“Captives” has been nominated for a 2019 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

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