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Celeste seems to have it all. She's beautiful; men literally trip when they look at her. She's rich—the kind of rich that makes tens of thousands of dollars of charitable spending no real biggie. She's got a hot sex life—even after years of marriage and in the middle of raising twin boys.
Yeah. Appearances can be deceiving.
Celeste, beautiful, rich, bountiful-sex-life-having Celeste, is trapped inside a living nightmare. Her husband Perry is abusive, and the abuse just keeps escalating. We watch as she spends the earlier part of the novel vacillating between thinking that she might be able to stay married to Perry and realizing she needs to get out ASAP, and the latter part of the novel fearfully and tentatively preparing for her escape.
Luckily, she has some good friends and an ace domestic abuse counselor to help her along.
When we meet Celeste, we're almost assaulted with the adjectives of beauty. Celeste is beautiful. She gives Madeline a set of gorgeous Waterford Crystal champagne flutes. When Celeste goes to spend Christmas in a Canadian resort, she admires her hotel suite and thinks it "was all so beautiful she felt like she could taste it.” (9.3)
All this perfection stands in stark contrast to Celeste's state of mind when we meet her; she's dissociated, and feels a little, well, off:
She couldn’t quite remember how to be. She’d find herself thinking: Did I just laugh too loudly? Did I forget to laugh? Did I just repeat myself? (5.2)
As we learn, a lot of this dissociative off-ness comes from the floating, numb feeling she gets after Perry assaults her. And these assaults are just happening more and more often. Still, she initially resolves to leave Perry after her twin boys go off to college, because she thinks of Perry as an absolutely wonderful father.
She also feels a bunch of misplaced guilt, believing herself to be complicit in her own abuse. It's internalized victim-blaming, and it's a nasty business.
But in the wake of one of Perry's violent outbursts, she ends up Googling a counselor who specializes in domestic violence. And it turns out that Susi—even though the slightly snobby Celeste thinks the "i" at the end of her name sounds cheap—is an effective, compassionate, and no-nonsense counselor. She makes it very clear to Celeste that she cannot shoulder any of the blame for being abused.
“Yes,” said Celeste. “As I said, occasionally he, we become physically…violent.” Her posh voice was back. “But as I tried to explain, I have to take my share of the blame.”
“No one deserves to be abused, Mrs. White,” said Susi.” (33.15)
After Celeste realizes that Susi is 100% correct, she starts slowly moving into action. She does what Susi suggests: she rents and furnishes an apartment, and starts preparing for her escape. But her escape plan is throw off by three capital-R Realizations.
The first realization is Celeste's: she realizes that her son, under the influence of abusive Perry, has been assaulting little girls at kindergarten. This makes her realize that it's time to leave; it's not just about her future, it's about the future of her children.
The second realization, which comes pretty soon thereafter, is Perry's. He learns she has rented an escape pod/apartment…and he's really upset.
The third realization is also Celeste's: she realizes that her husband cheated on her with a nineteen-year-old Jane. The act of cheating on Celeste was also an act of physical and verbal assault on Jane, and led to Jane become pregnant with her son Ziggy. (To call this realization a bombshell would be a teensy weensy bit of an understatement.)
These help escalate the tensions of the novel, culminating with the climax of Perry being pushed to his death. And with that fatal blow, a large number of Celeste's problems are solved. But when we end the novel, she's not sunning herself on Pirriwee beach and toasting to the death of her hubby. She's still scarred, scared, and traumatized. But she's doing the work that will allow herself and her twin sons to heal, going to therapy, talking openly about abuse, and living life to the fullest.