Ménage by Alix Kates Shulman

Heather and Mack McKay’s marriage is in trouble–not overtly, and on the surface of things, they may seem to lead an enviable life, but when Alix Kates Shulman’s witty, intelligent comedy of manners Ménage begins, the rot is creeping into the foundations. Mack, at 36, is phenomenally successful & wealthy.  The CEO of his own company, he’s moved his wife, Heather away from her New York career, to their ecologically designed  ‘dream home’ in Wildbloom, New Jersey, built in homage to her “green ideals.” Heather, who once had pretensions to a writing career, has shelved those ambitions and now runs her home (and two children with the appropriate hired help) while soothing her ego with ecology articles for an online journal, The Ecology of Everyday Life. Mack’s continuing absences, facilitated by a small private plane, have left Heather marooned on the mountaintop home, resentful that she abandoned her career, and suspicious that Mack is having affairs:

Not that Mack flaunted his affairs or was indiscreet; he was so discreet that she had virtually nothing to confront him with. Still, there were too many signs to ignore: guilty gifts to her; his evasive behaviour when he returned from a trip; the way he disappeared in his plane every Sunday of the increasingly rare weekends when he was home; and most tellingly, her inability to reach him, though he knew it made her anxious when he turned off his phone.

Mack flies to L.A often and his continual “jabbering” about the glamorous sexually rapacious Hollywood-connected Maja Stern, leads Heather to suspect that Maja is Mack’s latest conquest, but she’s only partially correct. Following Maja’s typically dramatic break-up with has-been Balkan writer, Zoltan Barbu, she commits suicide. Mack misses out on his intended affair with Maja, and although he flew to L.A. to have dinner with Maja (hopefully followed by a passionate session in bed,) he finds himself, instead, attending Maja’s funeral as she had “chosen instead to dine alone on Seconal.” So by page 25, Mack runs into Zoltan Barbu at Maja’s funeral, and Zoltan suspects Mack must be Maja’s latest and final conquest:

Now that Maja was in no position to contradict him, Mack was tempted to use the traditional male prerogative of claiming the sexual victory that had so far eluded him but that he hoped to perhaps secure that very night. On the other hand, there was undoubtedly a certain moral benefit attached to proclaiming fidelity to one’s wife. He didn’t know which response was more likely to win Zoltan’s admiration and confidence. Which was more appropriate to the circumstances? Mack whipped out his handkerchief and coughed into it for the full thirty seconds it took to weigh the pros and cons of each response before saying, “Just friends.”

Zoltan, down on his luck, penniless, and about to be evicted from his grotty apartment accepts Mack’s seemingly kind offer of a plane ticket to New Jersey and a room in his home where Zoltan can write his next magnum opus undisturbed. It’s an open-ended offer–one which comes with no expiration date, but Zoltan is intelligent enough to understand that Mack, a man he considers a philistine, must be getting something out of the deal too. And of course, he is. Mack is delighted by the prospect of Zoltan moving in–after all, he thinks that a writer on the premises, a cultural trophy,  may help inspire Heather, and also Zoltan’s intellectual presence in the home helps assuage Mack’s guilt about leaving. Does Mack, who triumphantly carries Zoltan to his home rather as one might bring home an exotic new pet, see Zoltan as a substitute?

Deception, self-deception, shifting alliances and multiple mis-readings are all part of this deliriously witty novel. A marriage is an impenetrable relationship at the best of times, and in Ménage, author Alix Kates Shulman creates three characters who are all unhappy with their lives for various reasons, and who each see someone else in this delicately awkward triangle as the solution to their problems. Will Zoltan heal and revitalize the McKays’ marriage or bury it? The plot’s light and wise humour is assisted by the fact that none of the three main characters are pleasant people: There’s the hopelessly crass Mack who believes problems are solved by throwing money around, and then there’s Heather who’s idiotic enough to pride herself on being environmentally friendly even as she lives in her mountaintop mansion whose solar panels allow her to bury the fact that her husband is hardly saving the planet with his solo flights to L.A to catch a meal with an attractive woman. And then there’s Zoltan…part fraud, part hipster. Is he using the McKays or are they using him? And the answer to that question is entirely in the hands of the reader.

A throughly enjoyable read, Ménage is a novel version of the best of Woody Allen films, and I’m specifically thinking Husband and Wives (it can be no coincidence that Woody Allen is mentioned in the novel). The politics of any marriage are delicate; add a third person and the results can be unpredictable. While my favourite section occurs when Heather and Mack’s friends, Barbara and Abe Rabin arrive as “witnesses,” one of my favourite quotes is this:

Everything Heather said plunged Zoltan deeper into confusion. He feared that her eyes, bright with passion, would fill up and overflow again. The tears he had found charming his first night in this house now seemed as dangerous as Maja’s. Were all women the same? What he needed was solitude; what she needed was company: irreconcilable differences. She was daily becoming less fascinating and more terrifying, like a North American Madame Bovary: self-destructive, incapable of foresight, in love with danger

Author Alix Kates Shulman is considered an early radical feminist, and she’s arguably best known for her novel (which I haven’t read) Memoirs of a Prom Queen. When I first started reading Ménage and scrapped away the surface of Heather’s thwarted career, I thought I was about to read a fairly typical story of a woman who sacrifices self to the many demands of home life. Well yes in a way that’s true, but Shulman’s novel is far cleverer than that, and with wicked humour, the plot explores the delicate politics of marriage and its unspoken, treacherous negotiations.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Other Press.

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18 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Shulman Alix Kates

18 responses to “Ménage by Alix Kates Shulman

  1. My spouse has been hunting down suggestions for contemporary American women writers for a book club she runs for new immigrants who have an intermediate to advanced level of English; this sounds like it might fit the bill, especially if the language in the rest of the book is as clear and uncluttered as in the excerpts you’ve provided.

  2. It sounds like an interesting author. It made me think of Goethe’s “Wahlverwandtschaften”. Not that it is similar but the idea to bring another perosn into a mariage and how this can lay bare all sorts of things. Always an interesting premise.

  3. I haven’t heard of this one and your review certainly sparks my interest. And what a wonderful cover (reminds me of Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room which is one of my favorite covers).

  4. What a strange way to get one’s wif side tracked:just throw someone else in her way.
    It also reminds me of The Art of Losing.

  5. It sounds a lot of fun. Is it an ebook or hardcopy?

    There really aren’t enough witty novels. The golden age Allen comparison definitely sparked my interest there.

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