We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

It’s something of a cliché to describe a novel’s setting as though it were a character. One review of Amy Boaz’s debut novel, A Richer Dust, praises her for turning “the landscape itself into a protagonist.” The flattery is understandable because Boaz, in this fictionalization of the British painter Dorothy Brett’s soiree in New Mexico with D.H. Lawrence, renders the setting beautifully. For example: “[The] sunset split open the horizon and spilled out a startling palette of orange and scarlet, igniting our ascent into deeper shifting ranges.” But equating setting and character is just a critical overdressing of the notion that an author writes nicely about places. Boaz, in placing her novel in the West, has chosen a setting on which writers like Cormac McCarthy subsist almost entirely. But that’s appropriate for McCarthy: His novels are very much about human ephemerality in unchanging landscapes. A Richer Dust, on the other hand, is more rooted in the conventions of psychological realism. Its narrator, Doll, a Brett-like painter, follows the writer Abe Bronstone and his rebellious wife to Taos, N.M., where they hope to construct a utopian commune after World War I. Around this main spindle Boaz winds two other stories: Doll’s early life in England and her affair as an old woman with a younger man named Akbar, who inexplicably speaks Caveman-ese (“Davida no love Akbar for himself”). The novel’s main problem is that Boaz expends beautiful words in setting the stage for what ends up being rather rote action. It’s hard to imagine that a writer as accomplished as D.H. Lawrence could have been as tedious as his fictional stand-in, Abe: The novel devotes many pages to wooden pontifications like “The war has broken down all old forms of class, society, and family.” These dreary diatribes develop the conflict between Abe and his wife, who resents his patriarchy, but one wonders if their real purpose is to afford Boaz the opportunity to sketch that most essential of Western scenes: the campfire, which “was stoked into roaring flames, snapping at the night air.” Boaz’s eloquence stiffens when she attempts to transfer it from the natural to the human world. Later, a scene with “the shadows slanting harshly against us in the canyon” is interrupted by a fight between a man and a bear, where “the two were engaged like ferocious gladiators, as if having prepared their whole lives for this moment of mortal combat.” The resulting impression is that of an author who, having expended all her energy on an exquisite set, can only populate it with bit players.