Petty Brutality  

Karolina Waclawiak’s The Invaders explores the small cruelties that bored, wealthy people inflict on each other.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Everett Collection/Shutterstock.

Karolina Waclawiak’s The Invaders isn’t about a family as much as it is about people who are deeply committed to their own destruction. The novel is set in the fictional Little Neck Cove, Connecticut, where the rumored relatives of presidents, senators, and other very important persons make their seaside homes. This is a place full of rich, entitled men, their bored, cruel wives, and children who range from merely disappointing to nearly psychopathic. As in most moneyed neighborhoods, the anxieties of the rich are projected onto the people who live outside their enclave—the fisherman and Mexican workers—while the thing they should fear most is actually in their own backyards.

Our narrators are Cheryl and Teddy, the wife and son of one of those wealthy men, Jeffrey. They are two people on the lowest rungs of their community’s ladder of significance—Cheryl because of her humble bloodline and Teddy because of his struggle with addiction—who are both plotting their way out after realizing they’ll never exactly fit in. However, it is Cheryl’s early interaction with a busybody neighbor and a rude fisherman that sets the course for the rest of the story, and ultimately, seals her fate.

Waclawiak’s novel has been likened to John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” but The Invaders’ surrealism is far more subtle. It’s a more nuanced meditation on class than it initially seems. We’re introduced to Cheryl as she is going for an early morning walk, internally lamenting the disintegration of her marriage, and ignoring the No Trespassing signs on private beaches and walks. Despite feeling comfortable enough to disregard the signage, it quickly becomes clear Cheryl doesn’t feel particularly welcome among her fellow country club members. She comes from a working-class background, and got married right on the heels of her husband’s first wife’s tragic death. She clings to the idea that if she’d come to know this town any other way, she might have been accepted fully. The beauty of the place is a stark backdrop for the cruelty of its inhabitants. “Without people, Little Neck Cove was one of the most breathtaking places I’d ever seen,” she says.

Our second narrator, Teddy, is Cheryl’s self-destructive, privileged stepson. Due to years of bad behavior that ultimately led to his getting kicked out of Dartmouth, he is as tolerated in his father’s house as Cheryl is among the other wives. His wild antics seem clichéd at times, and having access to his thoughts doesn’t always allow us much insight into his poor decision-making, but his perspective still helps flesh out our understanding of what it means to “belong” in Little Neck Cove. His childhood memories include breaking into, spray painting, and burning down homes, then letting the blame fall to the townies. “But it wasn’t them. It was us: me, Joe, Steven, Chucky, and Rob,” he says. “That’s what’s so funny. It was us all along—their own children doing it to them.”

Cheryl and Teddy are outcasts by choice and by design. Neither wants to be like “them”—the mean, moneyed insiders—and neither wants to be rejected by “them.” For Cheryl, being desired is rooted in her most successful transition: from retail worker to a wealthy man’s wife. She can’t imagine how to face the world outside Little Neck Cove, older and with little to call her own. After an accident, Teddy’s desire to be taken care of swiftly mutates into a fear of dependency, a lifetime of being forced onto others rather than freely chosen by them. Both of these characters are harmful, paranoid, and stuck. But so is everyone else around them.

Karolina Waclawiak.

Photo by Eric Burg

Waclawiak’s decision to tell this story from two very different perspectives helps in her larger goal of dissecting the nastiness that insular communities rationalize in the name of protecting their own safety. However, it is through Cheryl’s eyes that the emotional core of the novel is solidified. There is a masterful moment of dialogue in which Cheryl reminds a neighbor that she isn’t new to their exclusive neighborhood, and the woman replies, “Some people always feel a bit new, don’t you think?” The Invaders has more than a few moments like this—scenes that quietly establish the petty brutalities that bored, wealthy people inflict on each other. Waclawiak sets the reader up to experience the bite of rejection vicariously. Even those who have never lived in a place like Little Neck Cove have has been cut to the quick with a slight but vicious comment meant to remind who you are and where you come from.

As the townspeople square off with the non-resident fisherman over the rapid decision to build a privacy wall, couples engage in routine adultery, and a hurricane threatens to come down on all their heads, all that remains is fear running like a current under every interaction. Cheryl and Teddy find themselves abandoned and reckless. Waclawiak has written an elegant book about the difficulty of casting off who you’ve been and who you’ve become. Cheryl and Teddy are easily engrossing characters forced to decide if they can handle a life that honors this truth, or if they’ll let the sea wash it all away.

The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak. Regan Arts.

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