A Review of
The Surface of Water: A Novel
Reviewed by Mary VanderGoot
Cynthia Beach’s new novel, The Surface of Water, may at first appear to be a simple romance, but it unfolds as a modern morality play. Matthew Goodman is a mega-church pastor at the height of his stardom. He has reached his success by following in the footsteps of his famous preacher-father, and Matthew’s son is heading into the same profession. Religion is their family’s business. They are experts. They’ve mastered the lifestyle, perfected the lingo, and know how to keep the money rolling in.
Goodman’s new administrative assistant is Trish, a beautiful young woman who has the looks and the intelligence to become a fine addition to Goodman’s staff. When she enters a room everything stops “for a second too long . . . . her appearance generated energy. Her face magnetized all . . . .” The combination of a powerful man and a standout gorgeous woman is a setup for a dramatic encounter so familiar as to make the story seem predictable.
A reader, who assumes that the trajectory of the plot is obvious, may be tempted to skip ahead to the last pages and check out the conclusion of the story. Will this impressive man and head-turning woman float off into the sunset together, or will this overgrown mega-church come crashing down as they give in to temptation? The reader is in for a surprise. The final chapter is a word-for-word repetition of the first with an altered conclusion, and the reader has to move through the chapters in between to understand the significance of this.
In a layered story Beach invites the reader to consider whether morality is ever simple or virtue ever perfectly pure. The characters wrestle with demons that are tailor-made for testing them. Goodman’s gifts are tested by his vanity. The more successful he becomes, the less he cares about nurturing his flock and the more he attends to increasing numbers: he monitors the stats for how many viewers are tuning in to his broadcasts, he tracks the attendance at his Sunday services, and he takes personally the bottom line on the financial reports that translate the enthusiasm of the faithful into dollar and cents. Goodman rewards the generosity of his admirers by making sure their pastor has a luxurious lifestyle they can admire. He is a taker who complains about how much everyone expects of him; despite all the glamour and self-indulgence, he is a deeply dissatisfied man.
Trish also is tested. She puts the street-smarts and determination that allowed her to survive a deprived childhood to work at her new job. In Pygmalion fashion she allows Pastor Goodman to fashion her into a woman whose company makes him look good; all the while behind the scenes she is crafting an agenda of vengeance because she suspects that Goodman had something to do with her mother’s unhappy life and early death. Trish is a bitter orphan, confident in her own ability to sort out the righteous from the unrighteous, as she crafts a plan to mete out the vengeance she believes is hers to repay.
The setting for this story happens to be a church: the fictional Calvary Community Church. Alongside the humdrum of daily chores, the church is a workshop in which the rough edges of character are scoured. This same drama could be played out in other settings. It could be a prize-winning university scientist and an assistant, an elected official and a member of the office staff, or a network anchor and someone who works behind the cameras. Fill in the blank. The nature of this drama is universal. Oh, how the mighty fall.
In the acknowledgments for this book, Cynthia Beach gives away the secret for its inspiration. She tells of being impressed long ago by “Richard Cory,” a narrative ballad by E. A. Robinson. It tells of a man so perfect in every respect, the people of his town thought “he was everything” and “wished that they were in his place,” but his life is so empty he self-destructs. Matthew Goodman is a Richard Cory. Standing next to this flawlessly outfitted man is a beautiful woman who is struggling with her own demons. Trish is endowed with a sort of beauty that gives her extraordinary power over men, and she is gifted with intelligence that makes other women look up to her. She knows she has these powers, and she knows how to use them. Goodman and Trish are two versions of the same type. He is a vain and angry man; she is a seductive and vengeful woman.
Each of the flashy characters in The Surface of Water is propelled along by an inner and secret struggle. Trish’s inner demon is the deep wound of her childhood that is both a secret she keeps and a riddle she tries to solve. She is fine-tuned to the suffering victims of power, but she is blind to damage that can be done by her own machinations. Meanwhile hidden behind Goodman’s facade is an abandoned son who cannot forgive his own father for a failure to love him. As a consequence he cannot love his own children lest they move close enough to him to see through him, and he cannot stand his too perfect wife, who has tried to win his favor by being exactly like him. Both Goodman and Trish are broken.
Cynthia Beach, in The Surface of Water, has written an authentically 21st century story. It is not a heroic story. It is not a romance. It is a story that tests whether the truth can ever be known. It is a story that asks if it is ever possible to truly know someone else. She has created two characters, each suffering from the misuse of their own strengths and blinded by the denial of their own weaknesses. They are each an echo of “Richard Cory,” but Beach does not let E. A. Robinson’s poem chart her course to a hopeless end. She leaves us standing in a cluster of essential questions. Enough said. To say more would be a plot spoiler.