Daisy is an actress, talented yet not successful, in The Eden Test by Adam Sternbergh, and her husband, Craig, aspires to write a novel. For the couple’s third anniversary, Daisy, a fixer, arranges a stay at a secluded cabin in upstate New York, hoping to improve the marriage and end Craig’s wandering eye. The program’s goals are simple: relax, swim, walk and talk – and each day, answer a short, simple question, the first being “Would you change for me?”
At first, Craig scoffs. “That’s the whole experience? Just a bunch of questions to answer every day?”
Of course, the questions become more challenging, especially as Daisy and Craig each keep secrets. More accurately, they lie. The book reveals Craig’s lies at the very start, when he arrives at the cabin with packed bags in the trunk, ready to let Daisy know he is leaving her and flying to Cabo with a lover. But then he procrastinates about telling Daisy his feelings, preferring to avoid the uncomfortable conversation and missing his flight.
Daisy’s secrets are dispensed far more slowly.
First, she knows that Craig cheats on her, but keeps that information to herself. She understands that he constantly seeks affirmation, one foot at the door, ready to leave: “Craig longed for someone impetuous, someone surprising, someone fearless. Someone who made him feel like she could help him become the better version of himself that he had long since lost faith in but that he still yearned to be.”
Second, she knows they are become parents after long advising him that would be impossible.
Finally, Daisy appreciates how Craig does not press Daisy about her background. All he knows is that she is from the Midwest, attended theater school on the East Coast and arrived in New York City to act. He knows nothing about her history of violent abuse, the reason she loathes surprises. If anything, Craig seems incapable of surprising her and as far as she’s concerned, that makes them a perfect match. “Each of them [is] exactly what the other person needed. For her that’s ideal. That’s love.”
She appreciates life, freedom and the normal problems that come with Craig. She also appreciates his support for her career, regularly pressing her to pursue more prestigious acting roles in film and television. But she is desperate to remain hidden. “She always felt of herself like a pool ball, her life’s trajectory continually altered by violent collisions. She considers how she’s been forced to ricochet, changing cities, changing names, feeling fearful and helpless, just a random pool ball looking for a pocket to fall into, a dark refuge in which to feel safe.” Even so, she longs to be a fearless, carefree wife. So, she eventually accepts a small role on a popular crime show, allowing the couple to afford the expensive cabin and week of marriage therapy.
The program’s organizers’ goals for couples are simple: Seek happiness while learning what the other is willing to do for the relationship. And the organizers also warn the couple to “keep your eyes and ears open. Be prepared for any possibility. Let yourself be surprised.” Daisy has another goal – luring an abuser who stalked her for years, ending her need to hide.
A skilled liar, Daisy presents a pleasant version of an unreliable narrator. Accustomed to working in small theaters, she is humble and hardworking. No task or role is too mundane. Never breaking character, she practices at going beyond words to communicate. “The dialogue is rote, the lines already known, so the challenge is to find surprise and spontaneity and electricity in a pause, an inflection, a glance. It’s all about the moments around the words, between them, the crackle of implied meaning, the feint and parry of unspoken intent. People call it acting, but isn’t this just what we all do every day? Play a role, be who we know someone needs us to be, recite our expected lies, all while searching for some clue as to the other person’s real meaning, their honest motivations?”
Daisy is convinced that Craig is “Someone who wanted to be worthy of her. Who believed that she was someone who was worth being worthy of.” He had that shred of, not exactly hope but possibility, and she wanted to believe in them as a couple. She spent years resisting entrapment and exploitation and resists trying to control Craig. She understands that, for relationships, the carrot produces much better outcomes than the stick.
Daisy strives to orchestrate every detail of the week at the cabin, am elaborate production with her and her husband as star players. She knows they are on a stage and he does not, so surprises are inevitable. Like the couple in the original Garden of Eden, like couples everywhere, Daisy and Craig are flawed, in a relationship marked by multiple lies and misdirection. But the two pass the toughest of tests, forming a bond and discovering trust that allows them to be completely honest with the other.
Readers must suspend disbelief to appreciate this book, but then how else do liars convince others that their tales might be true?