A cleaning woman at a museum is swept into a moneyed marriage that provides the relished luxury to devote herself to writing, only to feel similarly constrained within social norms and a loveless union. Amina Cain’s Indelicacy is a slim, spare read that, like its main character, aspires to say a lot but steeps its messages deep into a descriptive vagueness that it expects readers to decipher.

The world here isn’t, and maybe even refuses to be, defined by a specific time period or geographical location, and resides in a “Twilight Zone” of ambiguous existence. It feels Victorian in its depictions of high-societal obligations, romanticized locales and pigeon-holed, patriarchal expectations; yet the protagonist buying whatever she pleases and roaming away from her materially doting but emotionally unsupportive husband is a freedom more likely enjoyed in modern times.

Perhaps knowing the exact setting is secondary to the narrator’s commentary on her alienation from her former working class life of scrimping savings, as well as her new role entertaining stuffy, upper-crust company, indulging financial excess and unwittingly relying on hired help herself to mind house. She can’t escape her “othered,” guilty feelings as she muses on, for instance, being more comfortable looking at rather than dining in a nice restaurant and fumbling a potential friendship with her maid, with whom she shares more commonalities than her spouse and peers.

So too does her autonomy and disdain for those she deems boring clash with the kind of pampered wife her husband wants, a vapid repository of love indebted to him for “rescuing” her from her meager origins. She’s quick to be mean to him for seeing her “only in relation to property and propriety,” and soon she decides her marriage of convenience isn’t worth the mobility and matrimonial distance to stroll the museums, ballets, concerts and retreats that inspire her to write.

Her craft is her main source of solace. She journals about the paintings she admires at the museum she used to clean, the scenery she sees and the imaginary scenarios in everyday milieus she notices. Her passages, denoted in italics, are of the moment, lacking thematic connection to the next blurb. Her affinity for writing is familiarly aimless and obsessive. Sometimes she loves her writing, then hates it, but still she identifies herself with this passion.

The problem is, there’s not much else to her character. The few facets of personality she exhibits are a sort of six degrees of separation from her creative desire. Even her closest friends — the only ones who call her by her name “Vitoria,” and not until100 pages have passed — link back to it. She and her ballerina friend bond over their respective loves of writing and dance. Her janitorial colleague’s humble and affectionate marriage acts as a foil to Vitoria’s own and makes her realize she wants out regardless of her compositional curiosity. This flat tone plagues other facets of the book. She emotes very little except to fawn over her interests or hurl a random insult, which makes her narration feel disembodied. The supporting cast is similarly underdeveloped.

There seems to be two schools of thought in interpreting this novel. Some laud it as a work so masterful in its subtle, understated look into class and feminism that it transcends the need for traditional structure. Others will grow fatigued or frustrated by the weightless, rambling point of view occasionally peppered with pointed observations that don’t find real footing. How well Indelicacy is received will depend on how a reader accepts its conflicting peculiarities. The prose is accessible though dashed with similes and metaphors, artful turns of phrase peppered with clichés such as eating “like a pig.” The novel has the potential to be a powerful allegory of a woman finding her own way through societal pressures, but it’s devoid of the literary trappings of devised plot, detailed setting, and fully embodied characters. Indelicacy’s insights ring true, but the emotionally detached, somehow myopic yet hazy narrative scope may render excavating them from the story a chore.

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