Sarah Bruni's debut novel, The Night Gwen Stacy Died, is a coming-of-age story set in the landscape of a psychological thriller; the mood is dark, and the characters reckless as the inhabitants of a Dylan song: "People are crazy and times are strange . . . I used to care, but things have changed." The protagonists take on the personas of Spider-Man characters in order to solve a mystery that may save a life—even as they tackle the mystery of their own lives.
At 17 years old, Sheila feels that she's seen and done all her small Iowa town has to offer. She's outgrown her parents, her sister, her school, and her only friend; her dream is to save enough money at her gas station job to move to Paris. The plan changes when she develops an attraction to one of her regular customers, 26-year-old cab driver Seth, who calls himself Peter Parker—Spider-Man's alter ego. For Sheila, Peter represents possibility, sex, danger, romance. She experiences "a kind of electricity coursing through her, some kind of foreign energy she didn't know what to do with." She is ripe for the role of accomplice.
Peter has spent most of his life trying to redefine himself. Traumatized as a child by the loss of his brother, he came to have nightmares that he'd later see come true. Seth assumed his new identity in an effort to redefine himself as something other than a victim; this mystery of self-understanding is at the heart of his life and the heart of his relationship with Sheila.
A lover of comic books, he's internalized his own myth enough to believe that "under the right conditions, in the right place and time, he could actually be the kind of person who could use his gift or curse to do something extraordinary." Peter's latest dream, of a man in a bathroom taking a handful of pills, offers him a chance at redemption, a chance at saving a life, if only Sheila will come along—she's become part of his dream world, "part of the equation." For the first time in his life, he believes, he is "following signs that were meant for him to interpret." He hatches a plan for himself and for Sheila, who'll take on an alter ego of her own as Peter Parker's girlfriend Gwen Stacy. With a gun from his mother's drawer, they'll fake a robbery at the gas station, empty the register, and drive to Chicago. Sheila complies. "A city's a city," she reasons later. Maybe Chicago can stand in for Paris.
Bruni offers a complicated architecture for this story, alternating chapters between Gwen and Peter's points of view and including a third point of view later in the book. Peter's chapters are stranger and less accessible than the others: he's fallen down the rabbit hole of his past, of his recurrent dreams, of his obsession with Gwen Stacy. How far in will Sheila follow him? How can she maintain herself in the grip of his narrative? How can she claim equal ownership of the plot?
The book is full of nice moments—small observations carefully rendered. Always strong on memory and its influence on our present lives, Bruni describes Peter skating and recalling the times he played with his brother on a frozen lake, how they each "tried to be the most reckless, the most unhinged, the first to break into another dangerous world and bring back evidence of his daring achievement." Or the time when Gwen, in Chicago, listens to French language tapes but is reminded not of her fantasy future in Paris, but of her old life in Iowa. Unexpectedly, Gwen finds herself "working hard not to let the French make her miss the home it called to mind."
In tracing the journeys of Gwen and Peter, Bruni is careful to provide sign posts throughout the book—but she can be too careful not to leave her readers behind. She leans a bit too heavily on the Spider-Man story, and when she adds a third perspective, the exposition gets repetitive. Likewise, the author overrelies on the presence of coyotes—both the literal infiltration of coyotes on the landscape, signifying the emergent wildness inside of her, and later the more mystical use of coyotes as a sort of spirit guide on her journey.
(Bruni's hand-holding shows a lack of trust in the adult reader, but it might be an asset for adolescents. I don't mean this disparagingly. In the Believer, Nick Hornby wrote of the giddy feeling of "finding adult books that are compelling enough for teenagers." The Night Gwen Stacy Died pulls that off winningly.)
To her credit, Bruni stops short of offering a neat resolution of every conflict, particularly the central conflict of her characters' quest for identity. Identity is complex and often paradoxical, as T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets: "In order to arrive at what you are not / You must go through the way in which you are not. / And what you do not know is the only thing you know / And what you own is what you do not own. / And where you are is where you are not." Or as Gwen herself says: "The important thing now was to keep reacting. The important thing now was not to stop."