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Originally published March 7, 2013 at 1:26 PM | Page modified March 8, 2013 at 2:19 PM

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The lives of four damaged women intersect in MacKenzie Bezos’ ‘Traps’

A review of MacKenzie Bezos’ novel, “Traps,” which continues the author’s exploration of the theme of emotional disconnection.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

MacKenzie Bezos

The author of “Traps” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday March 12 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

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The most distinguishing characteristic of MacKenzie Bezos’ fiction is how she uses flattened emotion to portray the world in which her characters live. Think of the painter Edward Hopper or the film director David Lynch: As with Bezos, they highlight the power of human emotion by showing a lack of it.

In “The Testing of Luther Albright,” Bezos’ first novel, the title character describes his inability to forge a relationship with his son and only child. Luther, a nerdy engineer who repeats the pattern laid down by his own father, understands seismic shifts but not the sine waves of the heart.

Likewise, in her new work, “Traps” (Knopf, 224 pp., $24.95) Bezos continues with the theme of emotional disconnection. This time, however, she puts the microscope on four psychologically damaged women whose lives ultimately intersect.

The book opens with Dana, a security guard with so much sang-froid that her heart rate never budges. She’s such a loner that she can’t imagine a future with her impulsive boyfriend, even though she’s drawn to him for his open and caring ways.

Dana’s job is to guard Jessica, an overwrought actress who needs the protection that uber-celebrities now require. Jessica’s husband is a rock, and they have two healthy young daughters who seem as yet unaffected by their mother’s fame. The wrench in the works is her grasping father, a man who almost makes Lindsay Lohan’s dad look like an upstanding guy.

For reasons that show how emotions rule good sense, Jessica sets out to rescue the dog that belongs to her dad, and Dana is obliged to follow. Dog bites girl, as might be expected.

The third of our foursome is Lynn, a middle-aged recovering alcoholic who runs a dog shelter. Besides the drinking problem, her remote location and a farm accident in which she lost a hand hint at the emotional scars she carries. Regardless, her empathy seems undiminished: She takes in castoffs of both the canine and human variety, including a new arrival, a teen mom named Vivian.

Of the four, Vivian seems the most focused and unfettered by her past, even though it was grim: She was working as a prostitute before she got the gumption to run out on her pimp. As a new mother, she has a singular goal, the well-being of her infant twins.

Each of these characters has potential in her own right. The novel’s structure, however, never allows them to move beyond a sketch, and when an epiphany occurs, it takes place at warp speed. Epiphanies are the stuff of a good novel, of course, but to be believable, they usually build on a platform that takes pages if not chapters to build.

In “Traps,” then, the suspense revolves around two questions: What could bring this seemingly disparate group of women together? Secondarily, can anything heal their respective torments? The third question might be: Does “Traps” make a better treatment for a movie than a novel?

All the same, Bezos is a serious writer whose interest in the psychology of family and relationships pulls the story forward. She signals her book’s intentions when Lynn tells Jessica, “Life is full of things that feel like traps. ... But they’re not always what they seem. Sometimes later we see that they led us where we needed to go.”

Ellen Emry Heltzel

is a Portland writer and book critic.

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