Even under ordinary conditions, a road trip can be the ultimate test of a relationship. But when torrential rain and tornado warnings cross the path of an already tense couple, it creates the perfect storm.
Hannah Pittard’s third novel, Listen to Me, explores the interior of a marriage that has been shaken by recent trauma. The novel begins months after Maggie is assaulted and mugged near the Chicago apartment she shares with her husband and just weeks after a neighbor is murdered, causing her anxiety to return. But instead of continuing therapy, which she had found to be effective, she withdraws into herself and seeks out stories of violence online that confirm what her own experience has taught her about humanity. Maggie’s husband, Mark, is baffled and frustrated by the response of his formerly optimistic wife and proposes they leave the city early for their annual summer trek to his parents’ house in rural Virginia, believing that removing Maggie from modern technology is the answer.
“I am very interested in the ways that technology has been changing my life and affecting my interactions with other people,” Pittard says. Having earned an MFA in fiction from UVA in 2007, she now teaches English at the University of Kentucky, where she’s witnessed the impact of technology on her students. “More than anything, what inspired the novel was me wanting to make sense of the extent of my own relationship with technology.”
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At the start of the road trip, Maggie’s cell phone serves as a point of contention when she continues to use it to descend into the rabbit hole of violent headlines even as Mark is literally trying to drive her away from such thoughts. But when they find themselves caught in a storm, her phone becomes a convenient informational and directional tool to help them navigate their way, and Mark finds he is more dependent on it than he would like to admit.
To paraphrase author Robert McKee, placing individuals under pressure reveals their character. Among the many character revelations on this intense road trip is that Maggie and Mark are competitive in their decision-making and in their assumptions about each other. As they try to maneuver their way through the storm, each wants to be right in predicting the other’s motivations and the outcome of their actions to the point that they prioritize it over creating an honest and trusting relationship.
“I wanted to try to crystallize the intimacy of what it’s like when people know each other so well; they’re more capable of comforting that other person, but because of their intense and intimate knowledge, they’re also more capable than anyone else of hurting that person,” says Pittard.
Mark’s desire for Maggie’s return to normal often means he isn’t present in the moment to support her, and is instead frustrated with whom she’s become. In fact, most of his positive thoughts about Maggie occur when she isn’t present, as if he likes the idea of her more than the reality.
“I think Mark is having a really honest reaction,” Pittard says. “He loves her. He wants to take care of her. But he’s also literally tired, fatigued by the energy that her prolonged crisis is taking away from him. I don’t want him to be viewed as a monster. I want him to be viewed as honest and complicated and maybe a reflection of how we all feel from time to time whether or not we want to.”
Along with Mark’s inability to accept Maggie in the present, he likewise refuses to accept her newly adopted, morbid worldview. Despite his occasional cynical thoughts about the impact of technology on society, he doesn’t share Maggie’s fear of imminent danger at every turn.
“One of the tensions in the book is that Maggie has, in many ways, this experience equivalent to eating the apple in the Garden of Eden,” Pittard says. They’ve been living contented, not too introspective lives. After her mugging, she’s trying to re-evaluate her formerly naïve outlook on the world and her understanding of other humans in the world with her. I feel like the tension of the book is whether or not Mark is going to take a bite of the apple, too, and begin to see the world in the way she does.”
By the end of the book, the reader will have to decide for herself whether the journey has had a positive or negative impact on the marriage.
“This book and the ending has anecdotally, in speaking to friends and colleagues, seemed a sort of litmus test on where they are in their own relationships,” Pittard says. “Some have said, ‘Thank you for giving me hope.’ And others have said, ‘They’re doomed.’ You might see the ending as happy or as a tragedy.”
But even if you see it as a tragedy, Pittard recognizes that telling ourselves everything is going to be all right can be a useful tool.
“I think the world is a really hard place,” she says. “Romantic delusions are what allow us to cope.”
Contact Raennah Lorne at firstname.lastname@example.org.