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'Mr. Peanut': Dysfunctional Marriage In A Nutshell

Jun 18, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.

So begins Adam Ross' debut novel, Mr. Peanut. Don't be fooled by the cute title — it's a dark tale of love, hate, murder and marriage: a cleverly written, structurally complex narrative with characters whose lives interlock.

Oddly — and disturbingly enough — the beginning of the book was inspired by a tragic story Ross' father told him about his second cousin. She was a "morbidly obese" woman who also "suffered terribly from depression" and "lethal nut allergies." Ross' cousin "apparently committed suicide" — although, "conveniently, the only person to witness her suicide was her husband."

The husband told police that he had arrived home to find that his wife was sitting at the kitchen table with a plate of peanuts before her. They fought, and at the height of the argument, Ross recalls, she ingested a peanut "and died of anaphylactic shock right in front of him."

When Ross heard the story, he was struck: "It sounded like an obvious case of murder," he tells NPR's Deb Amos. So he sat down and drafted what would become the first three chapters of Mr. Peanut, a novel that takes the story of Ross' ill-fated cousin and runs with it.

What Ross found particularly appealing about the gruesome tale was the way it "seemed to put its finger right on something that is so true about marriage — which is that at times, it is harder to understand what keeps couples together as opposed to what drives them apart."

Ross also found inspiration for his novel in the work of M.C. Escher, the artist who famously created mathematically themed black and white prints. In one piece, Escher invents a staircase that simultaneously seems to lead up, down and every direction in between. Just as that print shows one object that is actually several different objects at once, Ross says that Mr. Peanut is "the story of three marriages that tells the story of one marriage, or the marriage that tells the story of three."

As readers learn about the relationship between alleged peanut-murderer David Pepin and his late wife, they also find out about the relationships between the detectives on David's case and their own wives. The marriages all share certain similarities, interlocking just "like M.C. Escher's designs," Ross explains.

Each relationship also demonstrates how husbands and wives can shift between feelings of affection and hatred "almost immediately." These shifts are just as seamless as those in an Escher drawing, in which a viewer may be "looking at a staircase going up that suddenly becomes a staircase going down with someone sitting on the ceiling."

Ross says that the central question he wanted to address in his book is how two people who start out "so happily" can get to a dark place "where things can go so awry." In fact, says Ross, Mr. Peanut is "about as pro-marriage a book as I could ever imagine writing."

Then again, he admits it's also a "cautionary tale" — when married couples lose sight of one another for too long, it can lead to disastrous results. "In a way," Ross concludes, Mr. Peanut "is a way to wake up readers to what's right in front of them."

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