“The story practically spills into your lap as you turn the pages . . . A lot of wicked fun.” — Alan Cheuse, NPR’s All Things Considered
When Eric Lavender, a New York psychotherapist, meets the sexy, stylish Colleen O’Brien Golden, his bachelor life quickly loses its appeal. He moves to Scarsdale to join Colleen and finds a life of domestic bliss as a husband and father. But Eric’s suburban oasis is soon threatened by a conflict of interest with his lawyer wife. Suddenly Eric stands to lose everything that matters to him, including his own freedom.
As she did in her bestseller Almost, Elizabeth Benedict navigates the turbulent waters of love, power, and vengeance with biting wit and penetrating insight. The Practice of Deceit is a razor-sharp novel of marriage — and divorce — gone terribly awry.
“Addictively entertaining . . . Benedict specializes in the subterranean currents of modern relationships, the secret motivations and betrayals . . . Her wit is as sharp as her eye, and twice as fast.” — Newsweek
“A rare find: a psychological thriller with plenty of spot-on psychology in addition to the usual thrills. It’s smart entertainment by a very smart writer.” — Chicago Tribune
“[A] wickedly funny literary suspense novel, at times heartbreaking, always smart and entertaining.” — Boston Globe
“[A] stunning new breakout thriller . . . Highly recommended.” — New Mystery Reader Magazine
A Book Sense pick and Book-of-the-Month Club selection
Elizabeth Benedict is the author of Almost, which was selected as a New York Times Notable Book and a Best Book of the Year by Newsweek, the Washington Post Book World, and National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. She is also the author of three other novels and The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. She has taught writing at Princeton, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, MIT, and the Harvard Extension School.
We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of The Practice of Deceit for every reader.
1. The Practice of Deceit concerns the marriage of a sensitive male psychotherapist and his ruthless divorce-lawyer wife — characterizations many readers consider role reversals. How might your experience of the story have been different had the divorce lawyer been the husband and the therapist the wife?
2. One of the central questions the novel asks us to consider is: How well do we know our spouses? Can you think of other novels and movies that raise this question?
3. Before Eric meets Colleen, he is a carefree bachelor who dates younger women. Is he a sympathetic character to you? Do your feelings about Eric change as you read more about his circumstances?
4. Elizabeth Benedict has talked about the difficulties of creating Colleen’s character. Colleen first seems appealing, loving, and nurturing. How does your perception of her change as the novel progresses? Does learning about her past — as Eric does when he travels to Boston — arouse empathy for her or solidify your mistrust?
5. Eric’s narration of The Practice of Deceit is often light and funny, despite the tense circumstances. What’s the function of his humor? Does it seem out of place or appropriate?
6. When Eric and Colleen meet in Los Angeles, they share an unusual evening. What is your reaction to this early seduction scene? Why might Benedict have chosen this form of intimacy? What effect does it have on how you view the connection between Eric and Colleen?
7. Colleen did not need to marry Eric for money or financial security. What were her motivations for wanting to marry him? What were his for marrying her?
8. At the start of the novel, Eric expresses impatience, sometimes annoyance, with the concerns of his affluent women patients. How does he begin to see these women in a different light? What events prompt this change?
9. Do you think Eric and Colleen are good parents? What does Eric’s situation make you feel about custody issues in divorce?
10. Colleen is described as “something of a con artist.” Can you think of other con artists in literature and movies? What makes them such compelling characters?
11. One of the ironies of the novel is that Eric has been trained as a psychotherapist to be an astute observer of people. But he fails to accurately assess his wife’s true nature. What keeps him from seeing who she really is? Are we all sometimes similarly blinded by love?
Where did you get the idea for this novel?
It seems I spent the first half of my life hearing stories of the hardships women and children suffered in divorces — and the second half hearing stories about the injustices men endure when a marriage ends. That doesn’t mean the tables have turned for everyone, but changes in divorce law over the years and women’s increasing financial independence have given us more complicated narratives — and disturbing new possibilities for the roles of villain and victim.
Several years ago I heard the story of a very decent man I knew who had lost everything in a bitter divorce — children, property, most of his income. His wife had turned the children against him so she could claim in court that he was an alienated father and get the judge’s permission to move out of state. As the story unfolded, I kept remembering the hard-bitten woman lawyer I’d consulted when I was getting divorced, who had urged me to sue and demonize my husband to get a better settlement. (I didn’t take her advice.)
These stories and memories swirled around in me for a few weeks and came to a head one night after I read, by coincidence, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” A few minutes later, I found myself writing a story in a man’s voice, from a jail cell, explaining how he got there. He was there because of a charge his wife made against him. That was all I knew then, except that I felt I was beginning something large.
I don’t think most writers sit down and say, “Now it’s time to write a new novel. Where shall I begin?” It’s something that creeps up on you or takes a swipe at you from out of nowhere. It was quite surprising and delicious to find this man’s voice trickling out of my pen.
Once the novel was under way and I began talking about it, I became a magnet for horrific divorce stories — one searing tale of injustice and loss after another. The pattern was that the women lost financial security and the men lost their connections to their children.
The narrator, Eric Lavender, is a psychotherapist. How did you choose his profession?
I knew early on that he had to be a psychotherapist. It was the only male voice I felt confident I could sustain throughout a whole novel — a man whose business is people’s emotional lives. It took a while longer to decide that his wife should be a tough, unsentimental lawyer who specializes in divorce. That gave the story a lot of potential for conflict and exploring the places — public and private — where law and psychology collide.
The sensitive shrink husband and the ruthless lawyer wife are a disaster waiting to happen. It was great fun to play with all the role reversals and psychological and legal land mines that such a marriage offers.
Did you have to work at the male voice, or did it come naturally?
It took a long time to find Eric’s voice. Early on, I knew I was in trouble when I showed the first two chapters to an editor who had published my work before and he politely declined them. I realized the voice was too placid. I did what I often do when I come to an impasse: pick up all sorts of books, looking for something that shakes me up. I remember being in a bookstore and reaching for Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which I had tried to read before, but it hadn’t appealed to me. That day it did. It somehow opened up this energetic, angry, funny male voice that gave me the new, improved Eric.
Once I had the foundation for his voice, I looked for books that would help me know how Eric might think and experience the world. I read Robert Bly’s book Iron John, about how men struggle with their feminine and masculine sides, and this became something that Eric referred to as he grappled with his situation. I thought about having him consider standard psychology texts, which he would be familiar with, but I didn’t want to turn the novel into a lecture or study of competing theories.
There were moments when he had to describe how people or rooms looked, and I was very aware of how differently men and women notice the physical world. When he first sees the infant who will become his stepdaughter, I knew he wouldn’t notice her features the way a woman might, so I have him say something like, “I’m a bachelor, what do I know about babies? She looked like a baby, soft and drooly.”
In an earlier draft, he noticed Colleen’s breasts excessively. The woman editor who read it kept writing in the margins, “Too much with the breasts already!” but I’m not convinced I had that wrong.
The story is set in Scarsdale. Why Scarsdale? Have you lived there?
Scarsdale is probably the most famous suburb in America, a place that conjures up privilege and exclusivity and the personal stereotypes — take your pick — that we associate with that. The novel is about appearances and reality in a marriage, about what’s behind the seductive surfaces our partners project. The beautiful houses and manicured lawns of Scarsdale seemed the perfect setting in which to explore that drama — a real place on the map that looks something like John Cheever’s made-up suburb of Shady Hill.
In the early 1960s, as a young child, I lived in the next town over, Hartsdale, before my family moved to Manhattan, when I was eight. Scarsdale has always been in my backyard and in my consciousness, though I never lived there. In the years I was writing The Practice of Deceit, my mother and aunt lived in nearby White Plains, in an assisted-living setting, and when I went to visit them, I frequently stopped in Scarsdale to do research. Sometimes the research was reading the local newspaper, sitting in a courtroom, or talking to people in a coffee shop. Once it was sitting in the police holding cell from which Eric tells his story.
But how I picked Scarsdale for the setting is another story — and says a lot about the unpredictability of the creative process. After reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and scribbling the first pages of what became Eric’s voice from jail, I said to myself, “I could call this ‘Letter from the . . . what jail’? Jail, jail, what rhymes with jail?” Scarsdale leaped to mind. As soon as I said it, I knew it made sense for the story. For several years, I called the novel “Letter from the Scarsdale Jail” — until I called the town hall and learned there is no actual jail there, just a police holding cell where people stay for a few hours or overnight.
I loved writing about a small town, especially one where people often go to escape the perils of the big city. It’s hard to keep secrets in a small town, though people try all the time, and people’s lives overlap and rub up against one another in ways that are good for novelists. And a small town close to New York City created a whole new level of tension.
The Practice of Deceit is much more plot-driven than your other novels. Do you think of it as a departure, a new direction?
I felt these characters really demanded a strong plot and the high stakes that emerge in the story. But I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of psychology, law, ethics, and the eternal strife between men and women — which is invariably about power, intimacy, and money. Here they’re brought to a feverish pitch — and maybe the high pitch is what’s different. The book is more of a thriller than anything I’ve written before.
In The Practice of Deceit, you’ve written about men who are victims of ruthless divorce lawyers, whereas in real life, it’s often women and children who are shortchanged in divorces.
Absolutely — women and children are usually the victims because of inequities in the workplace and the realities of child rearing. That truth, that harsh reality, is represented in the novel. It would have been safe to write about a woman who is shortchanged in her divorce, but I didn’t want to do the predictable thing. Our first instinct is to assume the man is the villain — that he gets what he deserves in a bruising settlement — but that isn’t always the case. I wanted to ask, What happens when the man is victimized? Kramer vs. Kramer is as gripping as it is because the father, not the mother, is forced to be the child’s caretaker.
These are incendiary subjects, and everyone comes to them with a suitcase full of intense feelings and unique personal history.
Did you do much research to write the novel?
Yes, a great deal. I have no formal legal training, so I had to learn all the legal talk and maneuvers. I interviewed a great many lawyers, a judge, and several police detectives. There would be periods when I had no idea what would happen next because I didn’t know what happened, say, at an arraignment. I’d find a lawyer to help me figure out what would have to happen in court that would cause the characters to end up where I wanted them to be. I also interviewed a prominent professor of legal ethics at NYU, Stephen Gillers, who helped me resolve the professional conflict-of-interest issue at the heart of the book, as well as several divorce lawyers and an elder-care lawyer who gave up her divorce practice because she hated being a party to the vindictiveness of her divorcing clients. I almost never watch TV dramas, but I happened to see Law and Order once, and I realized I could have learned some of the legal stuff by watching it.
I read a great deal about personality disorders and asked a seasoned male psychiatrist to read the manuscript to make sure that both central characters — the male therapist and the disturbed female — were credible.
I read postings on divorce Web sites, spent time in family court listening to divorce hearings and trials, and toured the Scarsdale Police Department holding cell where my narrator begins his story. I visited the Scarsdale courthouse and the Westchester County prison in Valhalla.
Eric’s sister, Pru, is a pediatric cardiac surgeon, and I read several books by surgeons about their training in order to write her character. At one point, Eric describes the hearts of the babies his sister operates on. I wrote to a surgeon I know and asked how big infants’ hearts are and what fruit or object, in terms of size, they resemble. He did some research, consulted a colleague, and told me they are the size of a small plum.
How did a pediatric cardiac surgeon find her way into your story?
Sibling awe. Pru, Eric’s sister, is my own invention, but her career was inspired by the professional lives of two people. One is my sister, who is a gifted pediatric physical therapist and works with infants and children with severe problems, such a cerebral palsy. She’s bilingual, and for many years she did home visits all over New York City and spoke many dialects of Spanish with the kids’ parents and grandparents. The other inspiration came from a comment a friend made years ago about his brother, who is a pediatric surgeon, expressing his admiration for his brother’s work. He felt there was no work he could ever do that would come close to his brother’s in importance. I was very touched by that, and I gave Eric that awe of his sister. I also like the role reversal, that the sister does the manly thing of being a surgeon and the brother does the womanly work of helping people talk through their problems. Beyond the career inspiration, Pru is a made-up character.
There are a good number of interesting careers in this novel.
I’m hugely interested in people’s work lives, especially those whose careers are integrally bound up with their psyches, whose work is an extension of their most private psychological material. I love talking to people about the work they do and what it means to them. I love thinking about people who are dedicated to complicated pursuits, whether it’s learning acupuncture, playing the violin, making movies, or running businesses.
Your narrator, Eric, is a psychotherapist. How did you come to know enough to write so authoritatively from a therapist’s point of view?
My parents were both from religious Jewish families, but for a variety of reasons they gave up religious activities and sent us to therapists instead. There was a lot of unhappiness and chaos in the family, and they were wise enough to know it and to understand that we needed help. We were suffering from what Freud calls “common unhappiness,” rather than more serious kinds of mental illness. I’ve had trillions of years of therapy, with all sorts of therapists. It’s very routine for me, the way it is for a lot of anxious city people who like to talk about themselves. Recently, I’ve done some body-oriented psychotherapy, which I hint at in Eric’s work, but I don’t do it justice in the novel. I love the body stuff.
I’ve never written about it in my fiction because I could never figure out how to depict it in an original and dramatically satisfying way. And it would be hard to compete with what Philip Roth did in Portnoy’s Complaint, Daniel Menaker did in The Treatment, and Robertson Davies in The Manticore. I think I was resigned never to write about it, until Eric Lavender moved into my life. And I always imagined that if I did write about psychotherapy, it would be from the patient’s point of view, so it surprised me that I was writing from the therapist’s. I guess I’ve had so much therapy that I’ve internalized it enough to write from inside the shrink’s head.
Of course, novelists and shrinks have a lot in common: we love to think about why people do what they do. If we’re lucky, we have our offices at home and never have to leave the house.
In addition to your novels and The Joy of Writing Sex, it seems you write a fair amount of journalism. You’ve also contributed to a humorous collection, The Dictionary of Failed Relationships. Do you prefer writing fiction or nonfiction?
I began writing with the idea that I would write only fiction, that I could write only fiction. But I learned to support myself, such as it was, by writing journalism, mostly book reviews, travel pieces, issue pieces, and personal essays with a touch of literary criticism. I used to freelance for USA Today and write pop-psych pieces on etiquette for children and the meaning of New Year’s resolutions. For two years, I wrote a sex column under a pseudonym for Japanese Playboy. I have on occasion wanted to write something substantial and ambitious about an issue that gnawed away at me. When my elderly mother and aunt lived in assisted living, and I kept track of their money and fretted over how many more months they could afford to live where they were living, I decided to write a piece about what lies ahead for baby boomers when we get to our seventies and eighties and need help. I was lucky enough to research and write this article for The American Prospect. It’s a piece that taught me a lot and has been reprinted often. It’s called “When Baby Boomers Grow Old.” Another piece I’m proud of is “Searching for Treasure in Las Vegas,” a literary psychoanalysis of Las Vegas and the movies and books that are set there. I taught at the university there for a semester and wanted to figure out the place after I left. (Both pieces are on my Web site: www.elizabethbenedict.com.)
I’ve come to like writing more personal nonfiction a great deal, and I love reading it. I’ve taught a few courses at Harvard Extension in creative nonfiction. It was a great change after so many years of teaching fiction writing.
The following books may be of interest to readers of The Practice of Deceit:
Almost by Elizabeth Benedict
Good Women by Jane Stevenson
The Calligrapher by Edward Docx
The Story of a Million Years by David Huddle