In Rust, Julie Mars disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there are no second acts in American lives. The plot revolves around a long-orphaned painter named Margaret Shaw who, on a whim, abandons her life in New York City to learn to take up welding in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sparks literally fly when Margaret meets Rico Garcia, the proprietor of an auto body shop whose passionless marriage also makes him a prime candidate for a second act. Yet even as both characters strive to create new lives in the present, they find themselves haunted by ghosts of the past. In Rico’s case, the past is personified by his self-destructive late brother Fernando, while Margaret lives with the gnawing mystery behind the disappearance of her parents decades earlier. That Mars breaks up the main narrative with glimpses of the harrowing tale of Margaret’s father — himself struggling to find a new life in the wake of personal tragedy and grave misfortune — adds texture to an already rich tapestry.
The novel’s title offers a hint regarding the controlling metaphor of the narrative. Margaret is not simply fascinated with welding or with metal work. She’s specifically interested in rust, “old metal that slowly transforms itself into dust after going through a long redheaded phase.” This long redheaded phase is exactly where Margaret finds herself at the beginning of the novel (despite being described as a raven-haired beauty) — not quite as young as she used to be, eyeing the future, and wondering along with Rico what she’ll do with the remainder of the time allotted to her.
More than anything else, Rust is a novel about the slow passage of time, and Mars has an unparallelled gift for drawing out a moment, for filling a moment with meaning and poetry, for making room within a moment for what TS Eliot once called time for a hundred indecisions, a hundred visions and revisions. In the end, it’s humanity’s capacity for revision that makes Rust so moving, so true to life, for the parallel narratives of Margaret, Rico, and Margaret’s father suggest that while time moves forever forward — and while everything eventually turns to dust — the time we have, though certainly limited, is always ripe with potential. An excellent novel.
–Review by Marc Schuster