|My Immortal is a tale of temptation and redemption. The temptation part is definitely the more interesting. This would be great if we were reading Milton or Blake. But My Immortal is a commercial romance, and I'm not so sure McCarthy, who is known for a more light-hearted style, has her formula right.
Marley Turner is worried about her spoiled and unstable sister. The last she heard Lizzie was in love with a certain Damien du Bourg and living on his estate, a former plantation on the outskirts of New Orleans. At the plantation, however, there is no sign of Lizzie, and Damien doesn't remember her. He does admit that he organizes orgies and that Lizzie could have been one of his guests. He offers to put together another one on the off chance that Lizzie, or someone who knows her, will turn up. Without giving too much thought to Damien's motives, Marley accepts.
Damien is the Immortal of the title. More than two hundred years ago he made a deal with a minor devil: in exchange for immortality he would tempt humans into lust. Damien regretted the pact almost immediately and even more so when he realized the consequences for his convent-educated wife. He would like to break the agreement, but failing that he wants to ensure that he continues to live on his terms. Although he gives sexual pleasure to women (mostly insecure and homely ones), he doesn't allow them to return the favor. Marley, of course, is different. And that is my main problem with the novel.
I can see why Marley is attracted to Damien. A hot guy who works in the service of lust - who couldn't resist him? But Marley is, or so she says, a slightly overweight, fade-in-the-background elementary-school teacher. He couldn't, or so she insists, be attracted to her. Marley probably isn't the best judge of her own sexual appeal. Still, it's hard to believe the almost instant sexual attraction and even less so from a guy who has managed to say "no" for more than a hundred years.
Marley is, after all, up for some stiff competition. There's Rosa, the half-demon who signed Damien on. Although she is obviously involved in fiendish manipulations, she shows enough concern for Damien to downplay any inherent evil. Her wickedness is more humorous than horrible, more mischievous than mean. I wouldn't mind seeing more of her.
Then, there's Damien's sad and saintly wife Marie, whose confessional letters intersperse the main narrative and give the novel its emotional depths. The story of this lonely, homesick and mistreated woman is tragic, but Marie also triumphs majestically at least twice: once when empowering herself through temptation and then again in her redemption. Her journey to self-discovery heralds Marley's, but the latter doesn't plummet to the same depths nor reach for the same heights and so it is less moving.
Damien's behavior towards Marie is abusive. Although it doesn't seem right to blame him for being a man of his time, it's hard to explain how he goes from that to Mr. Sensitive of today. And although Marley becomes more self-confident because of him, it is neither entirely fair nor particularly satisfying that she should reap what Marie sowed.
What is satisfying is the telling of this concise but complex tale. McCarthy introduces several interesting twists along the way, withholds important answers until the end and carefully weaves the different strands into a coherent whole. This, along with McCarthy's signature sensuality, guarantees a compulsive, page-turning read. In the end My Immortal may prove Rosa (and Milton and Blake) right: redemption may be good, but temptation is a lot more fun.