Novelist and reporter Tim Murphy’s latest, lengthy book Christodora is a page-turner, the sort of sprawling novel that most people refer to as Dickensian. It is written in a heated spirit of urgency, often with shorthand phrases about what characters are feeling. I resisted it for a while, even as I kept on turning the pages to find out what would happen next. But this book eventually won me over. Murphy has an imaginative talent for exploring the subjectivities of his characters, particularly the women. This is a rare book by a male writer where the female characters are multifaceted and the most intriguing drama lies in their relation to each other, not to the men in their life.
Christodora takes place mainly in Manhattan in scenes that shift from 1981 to 2021, just a few years into the future, and the first half of the book is concerned with setting up characters and then revealing how they are connected. Murphy is not afraid of brazen coincidence. There came a point when he began to hint at the real relationship between two of the characters where I went, “Oh no, you can’t do that!” And yet Murphy gets away with it. Why? Because he has created characters so vivid that you finally have to believe in everything that happens to them.
The backdrop of Christodora is the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s as well as its aftermath, and so most of the main characters collide during meetings devoted to fighting the disease. Murphy charts the rise and fall and sometimes the rise again of people like Hector Villanueva, who is seen at varying times as a dynamic young activist and a wasted crystal meth addict. In one of the most memorable scenes, Hector meets up with “the queen” of AIDS activism, Elizabeth Taylor, who tells him that he looks like Fernando Lamas. Murphy takes risks here and elsewhere in larger-than-life moments between people where one false note would ruin the effect he is going for, but there is never an exchange that doesn’t ring true.
The best parts of Christodora are the internal monologues that the characters fall into, for this is where Murphy really shows his grasp of psychology. The characters have all been so individualized in these sections that when they meet and interact with each other there is a special thrill because it feels like actual people interacting in life but with the added incentive of some omnipotent authorial information to really make us understand what is happening between them.
Murphy’s method really pays off when it comes to the character of Milly, a decent and somewhat unexceptional young artist who adopts a little boy named Mateo after his mother Ysabel Mendes dies from AIDS-related complications. In the first half of Christodora, Milly is the least interesting character, or at least the character who seems the most “normal” and uncomplicated in comparison to the others. But at the novel’s end, Milly emerges as the most interesting character of all because of how convincingly she has changed.
The middle-aged Milly, having suffered, starts to shut down and withdraw from others, and Murphy depicts this withdrawal in a steady build-up of sad details. Milly is an easy-to-overlook “nice girl” who suddenly discovers as a middle-aged woman that most of her niceness has been chipped away, and what is left is the exact opposite of what she started out with. In a novel, you can show drastic change to a person over time in a way that you can’t in a film. Murphy takes advantage of this: he’s able to deliver some of the plot in broad strokes because of how sensitively he has created his characters.
Take Milly’s mother, a social worker named Ava. Ava is first introduced to us as a young woman in the throes of a manic episode, which Murphy paints in his distinctive “you are there” style. Murphy has a talent for scenes like the meeting with Elizabeth Taylor where you feel like “you are there,” but where he really excels here is in moving this quality into the psychological realm, so that “you are there” in Ava’s head as she has her breakdown. And Murphy also charges right into Ava’s own complex feelings for her daughter Milly, which are not exactly what we might think of as motherly.
The awkward non-relationship between Ava and Milly is one of the triumphs of this book because it is iffy and unsentimental and unusual, so much so that it acts as a counterbalance to the frankly tear-jerking scene where Ysabel’s mother comes to visit Ysabel in the hospital—even the most hard-boiled among us might have some tears jerked here and in several later scenes. And this too is counterbalanced by scenes like the one where Hector and Ysabel drink tequila and laugh together at an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 where Shannen Doherty’s character Brenda witnesses a robbery and can’t get over it. “Pobre blanca!” Hector cries to Ysabel, who says, “Yeah, she saw a robbery in Beverly Hills…how’s she ever gonna recover?”
Murphy wrote two other novels in his late twenties, but this new book is a try at something much bigger. Christodora isn’t a book for Joan Didion queens of either sex who like spare prose and apt similes and slim stories that would fall down like a house of cards if you removed one comma. But such “beautiful” writing can sometimes be vapid, whereas Murphy’s rough, passionate, splatter-the-walls style is filled to bursting with a reporter’s interest in different people’s lives and a novelist’s tough-tender intuition about what goes on inside their heads.