Heather, The Totality is a thrilling literary debut by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. A 134-page novella following a mother, a father, and a stranger’s obsession with a young woman, the story is hard to walk away from and works as a more modern version of the social commentaries included in Weiner’s award-winning television series.
The book tells the story of the smart but uncharismatic Wall Street worker Mark and his unambitious wife Karen as they raise Heather, a beautiful, intelligent, and empathetic child. Once she is born into this wealthy Manhattan family, she quickly becomes the center of their universe. Karen quits her unsatisfying job in publicity to dote on her full-time, and Mark steals as much time with her as possible. Simultaneously, the reader sees Bobby, an intelligent but disturbing boy who is born to a heroin-addicted mother in New Jersey, grow into a monster who is fascinated with Heather.
The story weaves between the viewpoints of these four characters, showing both the obvious differences and surprising similarities in how they view the world. Everything is fast paced, and there is no plot point that doesn’t serve a purpose in delivering the reader to its dramatic end.
The prose is simplistic and blunt, and Weiner keeps his distance from the characters while pointing out the flaws they see in themselves and each other with his third-person narrative: “He learned that he had none of his Father’s charisma and his physical appearance, his face mostly, was no help to him in developing confidence with women.”
After watching Mad Men, or the other show Weiner is famous for, The Sopranos, it could have been expected that this novel would have a grand plot and dynamic dialogue. But it almost seems as if Weiner set out to make a book that would be the opposite of everything he had done before. The story is short, the plot simple, and the dialogue almost obsolete. Rather, he focuses on the story element he left to actors to communicate for so many years—their inner thoughts: “The real secret, which the world must never see, was the melancholy that lived just under her smile.”
But like Mad Men, the women in the story are subject to the desires of the men around them. Karen goes unappreciated for her work as a stay-at-home mom, and while she is the far more attractive spouse, her husband eventually needs to picture other women on the rare occasions they have sex: “So as date night faded away in a series of mutual cancellations, Karen was apologetic and Mark pretended to be spurned but understanding, although he was relieved, burdened by the fact that when he didn’t think about the Trainee, he was unable to perform.” And Heather, who proves herself to be both insanely smart and emotionally mature, is seen as a damsel in distress by both her father and Bobby: “He knew it meant that he was afraid for Heather’s life and should something happen to her, even she would know he was responsible.”
And while Weiner delivered a social commentary on marriage, parenting, and the deep unhappiness that a strong reliance on wealth can bring, he also created a sickeningly entertaining story that is easy to digest in a single setting. If this is Weiner’s first crack at novel writing, I can’t wait to see what will come next.