Tag Archives: adultery

Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin

One good reason for readers to blog is to pick up book tips, and this exact scenario occurred recently when I visited Kevin’s blog and noted that no less than two other bloggers: Kim and Max both recommended Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks (and yes it’s been made into a television film!). Kim compared Dirty Tricks to Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here, and since that book was one of my favourite reads of 2011, that sealed the deal.

Dirty Tricks is narrated by a forty-year-old Oxford EFL teacher who pedals his “tenth-hand push-bike” from his shared flat in the slums of East Oxford to his pathetically underpaid job at the Oxford International Language College. It’s here that the narrator meets a married couple, the upwardly mobile and socially pretentious Parsons, accountant Dennis, “a wine bore of stupendous proportions,” and his sexually rapacious, PE teacher wife, Karen–a pencil-thin woman with a “large, predatory mouth, like the front-end grille on a cheap flashy motor.” After feeding Dennis’s wine snobbery, the narrator finds himself invited to a dinner party at the Parsons’ suburban home with the “lumpenbourgeoisie,” and he embarks on a sordid affair with Karen in which the biggest thrill comes not from orgasm but from the thrill of blatant coupling right under Dennis’s nose. After rubbing elbows with members of the consumer-driven middle-class, the narrator gets a taste of the good life, and following a holiday with the Parsons in a villa in the Dordogne, he decides it’s about time he moved up in the world…..

I wanted the lifestyle which other people of my age and education enjoyed but which I had forfeited because of the wayward direction given my life by the humanistic propaganda I was exposed to in my youth.  I didn’t crave fabulous riches or meaningless wealth, I simply wanted my due.

And just how Dibdin’s unnamed sociopathic protagonist decides to get his “due” is the subject of the novel, and since the tale is told by an unreliable narrator of classic proportions who refuses to play by society’s rules, Dirty Tricks is both transgressive and darkly comic.  The opening paragraphs of Dirty Tricks resembles a confession, but it’s not of course; this is a justification:

First of all, let me just say that everything I am going to tell you is the complete and absolute truth. Well yes, I would say that, wouldn’t I? And since I’ve just sworn an oath to this effect, it might seem pointless to offer further assurances, particularly since I can’t back them up. I can’t call witnesses, I can’t produce evidence. All I can do is tell you my story. You’re either going to believe me or you’re not.

Nevertheless, I am going to tell you the truth. Not because I’m incapable of lying. On the contrary, my story is riddled with deceptions, evasions, slanders and falsifications of every kind, as you will see. Nor do I expect you to believe me because my bearing is sincere and my words plausible. Such things might influence the judges of my own country, where people still pretend to believe in the essential niceness of the human race–or at least pretend to pretend.

Thus begins the narrator’s hilarious confessional narrative in which he explains and justifies his actions. He tells us his side of this sordid tale of adultery, murder, and social-climbing while waffling on the precise version of events until he creates one he intends to stick to.  Part of the reason the novel works so well is that all of the characters are unpleasant, and when the homicidal EFL teacher, a seething mass of envy with a self-admitted “yen for married women” is unleashed in suburbia, the results are explosively funny and wicked. Dibdin takes us deftly into the mind of the sociopathic narrator, and here he is applying grandiosity to murder

It is striking that at a time when just about every other human value has been called into question, the value of life is still universally accepted as an absolute. Despite this, I have no qualms about admitting to men of your culture and experience that the demise of Dennis Parsons seemed to me to be jolly desirable.

With this narrator, Dibdin creates an awful human being who’s always full of unpleasant surprises and whose base actions are unspeakably low and self-serving. Now matter how awful the narrator is, I found myself laughing out loud at his twisted, sick thinking. Just when I thought the narrator had sunk to his lowest behaviour, there were endless disgraceful actions in store.

I’ve always made a point of borrowing money from women early in the relationship so as to give them a hold over me. It also helps when the time comes to break off the affair, because you can talk about the money instead of feelings and love and messy, painful stuff like that.

In true sociopathic style, the narrator ambushes the reader with his twisted logic. Here he is discussing the past of one of his EFL students, Garcia:

Trish had given me a brief account of the allegations against him, but just to be on the safe side I phoned Amnesty International, posing as a researcher for a TV current affairs programme. Their response was unequivocal, a detailed catalogue of union leaders, students, newspaper editors, civil rights workers,  Jews, feminists, priests and intellectuals tortured and murdered, a whole politico-socio-economic subgroup targeted and taken out. I was dismayed. With a record like that, Garcia might well regard the menial task I had to offer him as beneath his dignity.

In this extremely entertaining novel, our narrator leaves a trail of revenge, death and disaster and yet always sees himself as the victim–a simple man who merely tried to turn his life around, and as the crimes rack up, his justifications become more complex, skewed and hilariously wicked. Author Michael Dibdin’s journey into the mind of a sociopath would be chilling if not for the humour, and for this reader the very best parts of this terrific novel occur when the narrator mimics the emotional responses he knows society expects of him.

For Kim’s review, go here. Kim also liked Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here.

14 Comments

Filed under Dibdin Michael, Fiction

All Yours by Claudia Pineiro

“However much you love your man, there are limits and sometimes, to be honest, I feel like putting a bullet between his eyes.”

In 2010 I read and enjoyed Argentinean author Claudia Pineiro’s novel, Thursday Night Widows. The book has since been made into a film. I’ve yet to see it, but I hope that Pineiro’s latest, replete with sly black humour, and told by a hilariously unreliable narrator, makes it to film too. That said, it’ll be no easy task to translate this book to the screen without turning it into a comedy, and that would be a shame. Chances are, if you enjoyed Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here and/or Jenn Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy, you’ll enjoy All Yours as well.

This slim novel which racks in at 172 pages in narrated by middle-aged, middle-class wife,  Inés Pereyra who begins to suspect her husband Ernesto is having an affair. Their sex life has dwindled down to nothing, and initially Inés is willing to chalk the lack of sex up to exhaustion on her husband’s part. But after digging in her husband’s briefcase and finding a heart “drawn in lipstick, with the words ‘All Yours’ across it, and signed ‘your true love,’  ”   Inés decides to take action:

But I said to myself, what if asking questions backfires on me, the way it did with Mummy? Because when she thought Daddy seemed a bit strange she went to him one day and said, “Is there a problem, Roberto?” And he said, “Yes, you’re the problem! I can’t stand you any more!” He left there and then, slamming the door behind him, and we never saw him again. Poor Mummy.

Inés reasons that she won’t repeat her mother’s mistake, and so while her “instinct” is to confront Ernesto with the paper heart and demand “What is this, you piece of shit?” instead she suppresses her rage. She decides that whoever drew the heart isn’t a serious threat and that Ernesto is “just getting his rocks off.” Nevertheless, Inés increases her vigilance:

So I started going through his pockets, opening his mail, keeping an eye on his diary, listening in on the extension when he was on the telephone. The kinds of things that any woman in my situation would do.

After a mysterious late night phone call that sends Ernesto flying from the house, Inés follows her philandering husband to a rendezvous. Hiding behind a tree, she sees her husband meeting his long-term, patently upset secretary, Alicia. An emotional argument takes place between Ernesto and Alicia, and it ends with Alicia dead.

Up to this point, Inés seems to be a little odd–one of those prim and proper ladies who worries about how her house looks, and what her neighbours and acquaintances think even while she can happily, and delicately, ascribe her husband’s alienation to ‘work stress.’ She seems to be on the pampered side and is, perhaps, a woman who can’t cope with the idea of functioning without a traditional family structure.  The initial impression of Inés begins to disintegrate, however, as the story evolves. With gusto and almost savage glee, Inés decides to show Ernesto just what she’s made of by providing him with an alibi (they were watching Psycho), even destroying damning evidence in her newly aggressive role of the supportive wife who stands by her man–no matter what. As time goes on, the crime remains unsolved, but life at home changes drastically….

What follows is a wickedly funny tale of obsessive love, adultery and revenge. The plot unfolds through Inés’ warped view of her toxic marriage, and then, at points, her off-kilter world vision is interrupted by what appear to be police reports. At still another point in the novel, the narration briefly shifts to third person. A sub-plot concerns Inés and Ernesto’s daughter, Lali, and while Inés who’s rather jealous of Lali’s relationship with Ernesto, thinks of her daughter as a protected spoiled brat who lives in a “bubble,” Lali’s life quietly unravels in the background.

All Yours is a marvellously clever novel, and I hope my enthusiasm conveys how enjoyable the story is. Initially Inés may seem like one of those perfect housewife types who’ll happily sweep anything under the rug rather than confront the fact that their domestic life is anything less than perfect, but when Inés begins to suspect Ernesto of the affair, she almost morphs into a bumbling amateur detective type from a British cosy. From then on as the plot settles into its main premise, Inés is clearly seen as the classic unreliable narrator. So we see events interpreted through her eyes while off in the periphery we get hints that Inés’ life is unravelling in ways even she cannot control.  When you have a character who sees murder as a less serious offence than the vulgarity of scratching herself, well you know that there’s a problem.

I took a bus into town I don’t like driving, especially when my nerves are on edge. And why deny it–I was really jumpy. I felt as if something inside my body was going to come out of my ears. Something hot. Something at boiling point. My insides? I sat down at the front and looked out the window. Trying to calm myself down. Deep breaths. Why did I ever stop going to yoga? The lights at the junction of Cabildo and Juramento weren’t working. Trees, cars, buildings. I fiddled with Alicia’s keys. Because the yoga teacher talked too much, she made me feel nervous.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher. Translated by Miranda France.

13 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Pineiro Claudia

A Slight Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée

I found Prosper Mérimée’s A Slight Misunderstanding thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal. This is a fairly simple story, deceptively so, of Julie de Chaverny, a beautiful, bored society woman who makes a fatal error. The title indicates that the error is ‘a slight misunderstanding’ and while it’s certainly true that the events which unfold occur due to a misunderstanding, this leads to a phenomenal error in judgment. This error mirrors the complications of love affairs in which those involved fail–deliberately or otherwise–to discuss their real intentions. Through this story, Mérimée shows just how exquisitely easy it is to misinterpret events and the actions of others.

Here’s society beauty, Julie de Chaverny married 6 years before:

Julie de Chaverny had now known for approximately the last five years and months that it was not only impossible to love her husband but difficult even to feel any respect for him. Not that her husband was offensive, nor was he either foolish or stupid. And yet perhaps he was something of all three. Looking back, she might have recalled having once liked him; now, he bored her. She found everything about him repellent: the way he ate, the way he drank his coffee, the way he spoke, set her nerves on edge. They hardly ever saw or spoke to each other except at the table; but as they dined together a number of times a week, this was quite enough to keep her aversion alive.

So much for married bliss. Mérimée’s insertion in the passage of the words “she might have recalled having once liked him” adds the element of the muddying of time and also a strong sense of ennui. There’s also the idea that Julie perhaps no longer wishes to remember the relationship for what it once seemed to be.  The craft of this 1833 novella shows strongly in its first paragraph. It’s easy to imagine Chaverny slurping his soup and being generally annoying at the dining table, and certainly his presence and possibly his manners serve to remind Julie of just how much she dislikes the man she married.

This state of affairs is buoyed by Chaverny’s constant love affairs with other women, and Julie…well Julie has her flirtations.

Young, beautiful and married to a man whom she disliked, one may imagine that she was bound to be surrounded by much admiration which was far from disinterested.

Julie’s flirtations are rather innocent. She enjoys admiration, but she has no intention of becoming any man’s mistress. That’s too bad for Major de Chateaufort, a handsome young officer who sniffs Julie’s marital distress and is determined to make her his mistress. Chateaufort hangs around Julie like a dog expecting his dinner, and just as he seems to be making progress in the affair, Darcy, a man from Julie’s pre-marriage days enters the picture….

There are a couple of scenes which capture the awkwardness of the De Chavernys’ relationship. In one scene, at the end of a long evening, Chaverny is caught unawares by the prospect of sharing the carriage home with his wife–no easy task apparently, as “the prospect of being alone with her for twenty minutes was alarming.” This really is a marvellous moment and Mérimée takes full advantage of it–including another significant carriage scene later. That same night, Chaverny even hints at sex, but Julie has a million ways of slipping out of his grasp and silencing any fleeting interest her husband may feel for her.

Mérimée shows how society plays a role is pushing Julie into Darcy’s path. This is an interesting contrast to Wharton’s Age of Innocence where we see society taking an active role in keeping Countess Olenska and Newland Archer apart. What happens to Julie and how she reacts to her old lover is the bulk of this story, and I was reminded of Louise de Vilmorin’s Madame de–another lost society woman who’s much more delicate and sensitive than she first appears.

A Slight Misunderstanding is a jewel of a story–no argument from this reader, but beyond the delight of reading it, I also considered the problem of intention and mis-communication. It’s bad enough these days, but love affairs must have been so much more complicated in the past–how could one discuss one’s intentions or interest if it was considered impolite?

Translated by Douglas Parmée

12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Mérimée Prosper

The Physiology of Marriage by Balzac

“A man ought not to marry without having studied anatomy, and dissected at least one woman.”

Although I’m a Balzac fan, I’m going to admit that I didn’t find The Physiology of Marriage an easy read, but that said, it’s an important and interesting book. It shows a young Balzac in embryo–still in the process of becoming the great writer who created Cousin Bette and The Black Sheep. The book also shows Balzac’s fascination with human behaviour–particularly the behaviour of women–even as he plays with and organises some of his major themes and ideas.

The Physiology of Marriage, published in 1829, is not a novel. Instead it’s a hodge podge of lectures, aphorisms, stories and observations on the institution and power dynamics of marriage. The basic theme is that marriage is not “an institution of Nature” but is an arrangement fraught with difficulties. There were times when Balzac seemed to lurch into Masters and Johnson territory–especially when he started working the numbers and calculating just how many French wives commit adultery. At the end of the book, a Duchess rather appropriately calls Balzac a “doctor of conjugal arts and sciences.” If he earns this title, it should certainly accompany the disclaimer that Balzac’s science is the science  of observation.

Balzac seems to explore every possible category under the heading of marriage. Here’s Balzac on women and headaches:

Now headache is an affection which affords infinite resources to a woman. This malady, which is the easiest of all to feign, for it is destitute of any apparent symptom, merely obliges her to say: “I have a headache.” A woman trifles with you and there is no one in the world who can contradict her skull, whose impenetrable bones defy touch or ocular test. Moreover, the headache is, in our opinion, the queen of maladies, the pleasantest and the most terrible weapon employed by wives against husbands. There are some coarse and violent men who have been taught the tricks of women by their mistresses, in the happy hours of their celibacy, and so flatter themselves that they are never to be caught by this vulgar trap. But all their efforts, all their arguments end by being vanquished before the magic of these words: “I have a headache.” If a husband complains , or ventures on a reproach, if he tries to resist the power of this Il buondo cani of marriage, he is lost.

And there’s more. Balzac paints a scenario of a young  woman “lying voluptuously on a divan” while her husband paces around the room. Although the word ‘sex’ does not appear, Balzac’s inclusion of the word “voluptuously” sneaks in the idea that sex (a lack thereof and the subsequent frustrations felt by the husband) is at the root of the headache problem. What’s more, Balzac accuses the medical profession of being in cahoots with the headache sufferers. Freud would call this hysterical illness no doubt. The passages on the problems of headaches within marriage reminded me of a professor who peppered his lectures on Victorian literature with salacious slices of information about his married life. He too held forth on the subject of headaches. The professor advised all men to keep a bottle of aspirin on hand, and then, when a wife complained of a headache at bedtime, the husband could toss her the bottle and tell her to swallow a couple before proceeding on with the business at hand.

Ah, the delicacy of marital politics….

Balzac arrives at the somewhat obvious conclusion (obvious these days, that is) that most marriages are unhappy, and that adultery is the natural result. Here he is discussing what percentage of the married female population commit adultery:

Adultery does not establish itself in the heart of a married woman with the promptness of a pistol-shot. Even when sympathy with another rouses feelings on first sight, a struggle always takes place, whose duration discounts the total sum of conjugal infidelities. It would be an insult to French modesty not to admit the duration of this struggle in a country so naturally combative, without referring to at least a twentieth in the total of married women: but then we will suppose that there are certain sickly women who preserve their lovers while they are using soothing draughts, and that there are certain wives whose confinement makes sarcastic celibates smile. In this way we shall vindicate the modesty of those who enter upon the struggle from motives of virtue. For the same reason we should not venture to believe that a woman forsaken by her lover will find a new one on the spot; but this discount being much more uncertain than the preceding one, we will estimate it at one-fortieth.

Balzac is saying that women don’t intend to commit adultery, but that it happens after a period of inner struggle and with cause (spousal mistreatment which is also discussed). After crunching the numbers, he lands on the figure that approx. 800,000 French women commit adultery. Dostoevsky would not agree with Balzac’s idea that women don’t have serial lovers. In The Eternal Husband, Natalya Vasilyevna cuckolds both a husband and a lover when a new man arrives on the scene. Natalya has to get rid of her old, boring lover, Velchaninov, in order to conduct an affair with a newcomer.

In Prometheus: The Life of Balzac, author Andre Maurois states that Balzac, a bachelor at the time the book was written, was privy to the confidences of many women, including the Duchesse d’Abrantès, Fortunée Hamelin, and Sophie Gay. Maurois argues that Balzac sees marriage as “a civil war requiring weapons and strategy in which victory (meaning personal liberty) goes to the better general,” and he further argues that Balzac is on the side of the wife. While I think Balzac was a remarkably enlightened man for his time, from a 21st century perspective, I don’t agree that The Physiology of Marriage places Balzac wholeheartedly on the side of the wife. The book was extremely popular with women at the time of its publication and no doubt it seemed revolutionary then. There are certainly many pro-wife statements but the book could well amount to a handbook of strategy for husbands. The Maurois bio, by the way, was written in 1965, and societal attitudes towards women have undergone a sizeable shift.

Given how the bikini-clad Helen Mirren has suddenly become a sex object at the age of 66, I’d say that this is no longer true:

The average age at which women are married is twenty years and at forty they cease to belong to the world of love.

But, according to Balzac, men enjoy a longer shelf life, and here’s a powerful observation:

On the other hand, a man at fifty-two is more formidable than at any other age. It is at this fair epoch of life that he enjoys an experience dearly bought, and probably all the fortune that he will ever acquire. The passions by which his course is directed being the last under whose scourge he will move, he is unpitying and determined, like the man carried away by the current who snatches at a green and pliant branch of willow, the young nursling of the year.

Can’t argue with that….

The Physiology of Marriage is available FREE for the Kindle, on the internet and at Project Gutenberg.

31 Comments

Filed under Balzac, Fiction

The Eternal Husband by Dostoevsky Part I

“She was faithful to her lover–though only until he bored her.”

The Eternal Husband, written by Dostoevsky in 1869,  explores the relationship between two men–Velchaninov, a middle-aged bachelor who suffers from hypochondria, and Trusotsky, a widower from the provinces. The two men are connected by relationships with a woman who’s now dead. The woman, who died from consumption, was Natalya Vasilyevna, Trusotsky’s wife and Velchaninov’s lover. The affair took place nine years earlier when Velchaninov stayed in a provincial town named T. ostensibly to oversee his interests in a lawsuit but, in truth he lingered to conduct the “liaison” with Natalya. The affair lasted for a year, and during this time Velchaninov was in “thrall” to his mistress. This was a new experience for Velchaninov as he was used to being the one in control in amorous relationships–“neither before, nor after had anything like ever happened to him.” Velchaninov, at Natalya’s insistence and argument that she thought she was pregnant, agreed to return to St Petersburg for a short period of time to allay her husband’s suspicions. But once there, Natalya writes to Velchaninov and tells him the affair is finished.

Due to the affair’s abrupt conclusion, Velchaninov has deeply buried unresolved feelings, and there’s “the question which was to remain forever unsettled for him: had he really loved that woman, or had it been just ‘pleasure’ alone?”

Don’t imagine that Velchaninov suffers from a broken heart. Velchaninov is a classic Ludic lover, a man who enjoys the game and the strategies of love and who avoids commitment at all costs. With Natalya, he was simply outmanoeuvred. Dostoevsky paints Velchaninov as a spoiled, vain, self-focused man who’s thoughtlessly ruined more than one woman. Here’s one of Velchaninov’s more shameful amorous adventures, including an instinctive justification which concerns:

 a young girl, a simple townswoman, whom he had not even found attractive and of whom, without knowing why himself, he had had a child, and how he had simply abandoned her, together with the child, without even saying goodbye (true, there had been no time), when he had left St Petersburg. He had spent a whole year hunting for the girl later on, but was already quite unable to find her. Moreover, there proved to be all but hundreds of such memories–and it was even as if each memory dragged dozens of others along after it. Little by little his vanity began to suffer too.

Fast forward nine years when the novel begins. It’s St. Petersburg, and Velchaninov at age 38 or 39, in some aspects already seems to be elderly. Perhaps it’s his ill-temper, or even his hypochondria. He is peevishly waiting for the resolution of  yet another lawsuit:

This case–a lawsuit concerning an estate–was taking an extremely bad turn. Only three months before it had looked not at all complicated, almost indisputable; but everything had somehow suddenly changed. ‘Every thing in general has started changing for the worst!’ Velchaninov had started repeating this phrase to himself often and with malicious exultation. He was employing a lawyer who was cunning, expensive and well-known, and he was unsparing with his money; but in impatience and out of mistrust he had taken to dealing with the case himself too; he read and wrote documents which the lawyer entirely rejected, he ran from one office to another, made enquiries, and probably hindered everything greatly; at least, the lawyer complained and urged him to go away to a dacha. Dust, stifling heat, the white St Petersburg nights irritating his nerves–that is what he enjoyed in St Petersburg. His apartment was somewhere near the Grand Theatre, was newly rented by him, and was not a success either; ‘nothing was a success!’ His hypochondria increased with every day; but he had already long been inclined to hypochondria.

Since Velchaninov has successfully buried many unpleasant memories in his past, perhaps it makes sense that when he starts seeing a man everywhere he goes, at first he doesn’t recognise him. The man is, as it turns out, none other than Trusotsky, the husband of his former lover. The two men form an uneasy relationship, and from Trusotsky, Velchaninov learns of the death of Natalya and that she left behind a little girl. Velchaninov does the arithmetic, wonders if the child is his, and sees a chance for redemption….

Dostoevsky’s tale explores the relationship between the two men–Trusotsky, the cuckold, and Velchaninov, the lover. Since Trusotsky appears to be a complete idiot, the perfect cuckold, Velchaninov isn’t quite sure what Trusotsky knows about his relationship with Natalya. His conversations with Trusotsky are fraught with danger and nervous tension. Things heat up when Trusotsky announces his engagement and then, rather strangely insists that Velchaninov accompanies him to meet the girl he intends to marry.

At one point, Velchaninov muses on the relationship between Trusotsky and Natalya. “She was one of those women,” he thought, “who just seem to be born to be unfaithful wives.” And then he reasons that conversely there exists “a type of husbands corresponding to those women, whose sole purpose lay only in corresponding to that female type. In his opinion, the essence of such husbands consisted in their being, so to speak. ‘eternal husbands’, or to put it better, being only husbands in life and absolutely nothing more.” Velchaninov gets to test his theory of Trusotsky as Eternal Husband or perpetual cuckold.

The Eternal Husband contains Dostoevsky’s characteristic humour, and as usual, he gives his characters nowhere to hide when it comes to the illumination of the baser self, the petty spitefulness of human nature and the sly ulterior motive. There’s a sadistic element afoot emanating from the sanctimonious Trusotsky who very possibly knows more than Velchaninov thinks, and yet both men are pathetic creatures for their exploitation of the women in their lives. The scene that takes place of the Zakhlebinins (the home of no less than 12 marriageble daughters) shows the plight of women who are at the mercy of whatever replusive eligible men come to visit. The Zakhlebinin family is on the brink of financial disaster, so it is imperative that the girls are married off. Dostoevsky shows the plight of sweet-natured Katerina, the eldest girl, who now has few prospects of marriage, and contrasts her to Nadezhda, the youngest girl. Nadezhda, very much a modern girl in the Nihilist camp, is brunette whereas her sisters are blonde. Is Nadezhada, hardly a pliable girl, the result of yet another Eternal Husband? And it’s over Nadezhada that the two men, Trusotsky and Velchaninov form a strange truce when they find themselves trumped by youth.

My copy from Hesperus Press includes a foreword by Andrew Miller and is translated by Hugh Aplin

9 Comments

Filed under Dostoevsky, Fiction

Tigerlily’s Orchids by Ruth Rendell

“Many people lead virtuous lives not because they resist temptation, but because temptation never comes their way.”

As a long-time fan of Ruth Rendell, I am always ready to grab her latest book, so fast on the heels of Portobello comes another stand-alone tale, Tigerlily’s Orchids. Just as Portobello focused on the occupants of a particular neighbourhood, Tigerlily’s Orchids concentrates on the residents of the flats of Lichfield House in the outer suburbs of London.

The newest resident of the flats in Stuart Font, a fortunate young man in many ways. He has the looks of a male model (and the vanity to match) and he’s just inherited 400,000 pounds from an eccentric great-aunt. While Stuart’s parents urge their son to get a job (and even send possible employment his way), Stuart has other plans. Against his parents’ advice to wait out the falling home prices, he spends half the inheritance on a flat in Lichfield house. With the rest of the money, he intends to be a gentleman of leisure and perhaps take a year or two before seeking employment. His plans are complicated by the fact he has an expensive lover–Claudia, a deputy fashion editor for a newspaper. She expects to be taken to the best restaurants and even at one point manoeuvres the purchase of a necklace for a mere 1000 pounds. One of the reasons Stuart is disinclined to work is so that he can continue his complicated affair with Claudia, and that means he needs to keep his days free so that they can spend them in bed together while her husband is at work.

When the book begins, Stuart is planning a house-warming party, and he’s drawing up a guest list that will include all the other residents: three single female students, Dr. Michael Constantine and his wife, a couple of middle-aged singles,  Marius Potter, Rose Preston-Jones, and Olwen, a sixty year old alcoholic. Also in attendance will be a couple of Stuart’s friends, the building’s caretaker and his buxom wife and an assortment of neighbours. As it turns out, the party is a significant occasion that ends badly.

The novel establishes a growing sense of malignancy which is coupled with the idea that no one will emerge unscathed from the events that take place. To describe Tigerlily’s Orchids as a crime novel is to ignore the subtle nuances of the plot, for while many crimes take place in these pages, not all of these crimes can be labelled neatly with a perp and a victim. Rendell’s characters are considered normal people–the sort of people we know and work with. A fair number of the characters have something or another to be ashamed about, and the crimes in these pages run the gamut from murder to enabling addiction. In Portobello, addiction played a role (the main character was addicted to diet sweets), and in Tigerlily’s Orchids we see the same sort of behaviours: addiction coupled with obsession. While Olwen’s addiction to alcohol moves blindly forward, gathering momentum as the book continues, it becomes clear that many other characters suffer from dangerous obsessions. Stuart is obsessed with his lover, Claudia, but eventually those roles as reversed, but there are several other obsessions afoot. And these obsessions, as Rendell so deliciously shows, blind the various characters to reality with catastrophic results. Dr. Michael Constantine, for example, is a non-practicing physician who writes a column. His obsession with crushing any sort of non-medical treatments through his writing takes him on a one-way ticket to unemployment as he refuses to even consider any other point of view.

By far my favourite character is Olwen:

Reclining, her feet up on a cushion, she reflected as she often did, on having, at the age of sixty, attained her lifelong aim. Through two marriages, both unsatisfactory, seemingly endless full-time work, houses she had disliked, uncongenial stepchildren, and dour relations, she was at last doing what she had always wanted to do but had rigidly, for various reasons, stringently controlled. She was drinking the unlimited amount of alcohol she had longed for. She was, she supposed, but without rancour or regret, drinking herself to death.

Olwen has given up on relationships and humanity in general. She doesn’t want human communication. Instead she’s locked in a tango of death with alcohol. She’s devised a way of coping with people–especially people who preach to her or try to get in the way of her addiction. Her main, practically only, response to anyone is “not really”:

Olwen had long ago discovered that this was a response which may be made with impunity to almost any enquiry, including “Are you well?’ and “Are you free on Saturday?” Not that people often asked her anything. She made it plain that she was mostly inaccessible.

Rendell proceeds to show just how that phrase “not really” works so well for Olwen’s desire to alienate people. Think I might try it out.

The lives of Rendell’s characters are set against the economic downturn, and the action reflects the changes. As shops close or hold desperate sales, the characters respond accordingly. The recession impacts the characters’ relationships, and it certainly turns up the heat. In one scene, Stuart loads up on furniture from a local shop. He doesn’t particularly like the stuff he buys but it’s on sale, and he can’t resist buying a mirror for the vanity feedback it offers.

Tigerlily’s Orchids explores the horrors of suburbia, and here Rendell creates a neighbourhood crucible, adding just enough of the ingredients–passion, jealousy, and obsession until she achieves combustion. While The Tree of Hands is my favourite Rendell (and I doubt it’ll ever be supplanted), Tigerlily’s Orchids is a welcome return to this author.

15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Rendell, Ruth

The Summer House by Alice Thomas Ellis

 “For if it is not possible to be free, perhaps to be hidden is the next best thing.”

The Summer House by British author Alice Thomas Ellis (real name Anna Haycraft) is a story built around the events that take place before an impending wedding. The novel is a trilogy and it’s divided into three parts: The Clothes in the Wardrobe, The Skeleton in the Cupboard, and The Fly in the Ointment. Don’t be put off by the idea of the trilogy as my Penguin edition has a mere 339 pages.

I throughly enjoyed this comedy of manners for its playful yet dark approach to some favourite themes–the gathering of family and friends, the subtle politics of relationships, and various shades of mis-behaviour politely tolerated or ignored. One of the most delightful aspects of The Summer House is the way that everyone manages to silently engage in a unilateral conspiracy to ignore bad behaviour until that behaviour becomes so outrageous, it can no longer be overlooked. The story, with lavish dollops of generous humour,  is told through the eyes of three very different narrators, young bride-to-be, Margaret, the exotic, promiscuous half-Egyptian Lili, and the elderly Mrs Monro.

The novel revolves around what should–under better circumstances–be considered a joyous event. Margaret who lives with her divorced mother, Monica in the well-to do, safe, yet fussily staid part of Croyden, is engaged to marry Syl–a man who lives next door. With his mother. If that gave you pause, you’re heading in the right direction. But there are more problems here than just Syl’s living arrangements. Syl, a lawyer, is old enough to be Margaret’s father, and his previous, innumerable engagements have failed, for vague reasons, to end in marriage. There are hints that Syl leads a double life, but worse than that, Margaret is not in love with Syl. In fact, she loathes him:

I spent as little time with Syl as I possibly could. He didn’t seem to mind. He had few friends but many acquaintances. He played tennis and golf and sometimes went swimming, determined to give no appearance of succumbing to time, to age, I saw that he could not marry a woman of his own generation, for that would double his chances of seeming old. It was sad for me, I thought, that I was the only girl in the world sufficiently stupid to permit herself to be sacrificed to his vanity.

So why is Margaret, a privileged young girl who has no worries or pressures about employment or money marrying a man she loathes? The reason is not immediately apparent, but in Part I: The Clothes in the Wardrobe, Margaret, who is depressed, narrates a tale that reveals an enormous and confusing sense of guilt for an incident in her past. She travelled to Egypt to spend some time with one of her mother’s old school friends, Marie Claire, and something (revealed in time) very bad happened there. Margaret simply no longer cares what happens to her, and she drifts towards her wedding day hoping that something or someone will intervene and save her from Syl.

Part II: The Skeleton in the Cupboard is narrated by Syl’s mother, Mrs Monro. While Mrs Monro hopes to see her son “settled” before she dies, she has serious misgivings about the wedding. Naturally in spite of his faults, she loves her son, and she’s appalled by Margaret’s obvious disinterest in Syl. Mrs Monro, whose main companion after Syl is her overweight elderly Pug, feels powerless to intervene even though she knows that the marriage will be an unmitigated disaster.

Part III: The Fly in the Ointment is narrated by the flamboyant, “vividly alive” middle-aged Lili who arrives with her artist husband in Britain in order to attend the wedding. Lili, who was one of Monica’s best friends in school in Egypt, moves in ostensibly to help with the wedding preparations. Lili, however, has a checkered past, and that leads to confidences from Mrs Monro and desperate hints for help from Margaret.

Here’s Mrs Monro on the unforgettable Lili:

I was disproportionately pleased to see her. She had the effect of an open window on a frosty room, ice in a lukewarm drink, wind on a sullen sea, She was free of the shaming curbs of expedient morality. She would never smell of milk, or the urine of infants, or laundry-steam rising from linen indiscriminately washed. She wasn’t a mother, and if she was a wife, she was, by conventional standards, a gloriously bad one.

Here Mrs Monro discusses memory and aging:

Looking in the mirror, I could see no trace of the girl whose life I had been reliving. Old age seemed to me not so much a natural progression as a disguise: a suit of unsuitable clothes, ill-fitting and inappropriate.

As the wedding draws near, the attempts to cover Margaret’s joylessness, dread, and sense of impending doom become harder and harder to conceal, and there’s an atmosphere of increasing almost intolerable pressure. Margaret’s mother is determined to make Margaret see it through as she views marriage as some sort of social and moral obstacle course fraught with martyrdom and duty.

Author Alice Thomas Ellis competently creates a wonderful tale that steers a course between some characters who realise things are terribly wrong, other characters who are determined to ignore the warning signs, and finally a few who are oblivious to things going on right under their noses.

It’s a tribute to the skill of the author that she decides to slice the tale into three narratives–a device which allows us to see different facets of the characters involved in the drama. Through Margaret’s eyes, old Mrs Monro is boring and doddery, but then we get Mrs Monro’s narration and see that she’s an extremely sympathetic character, and Syl may be unpleasant and vain, but he is a good son. Lili’s robust narrative reveals a woman who shares her doubts only with her reflection while she plays a close, duplicitous hand with everyone else. While a great deal of the book’s focus is on the various misdeeds of men (adultery &  immaturity), the women are not without their share of faults. There’s the marvellously amoral and predatory Lili–a woman who’ll sleep with a gallery director to seal the promise of a show, but there’s also the pathologically prim Monica–a woman who’d drive any spouse to insanity. Lili secretly calls Monica a “grabber,” a woman who’s grabbed so much of her ex-husband’s assets that he, his dull new wife and their two pale “dressed up dead chicken” children live in straitened circumstances. Some of the most delightfully wicked passages concern domestic paragon Monica’s gloating attitude and “angelic forbearance”  towards her ex’s miserable second marriage and the questionable talents of his hopeless second wife.

She had been outraged when her husband left her for another woman, had addressed him with religious vehemence and spoken of hell, but as time passed she had realized that life was very much more pleasant without him, that he was generous with money, and so she had, not forgiven, but ceased to revile him; and I know she found grim amusement in my stepmother’s harassed countenance and the irritating ways of her two small children. They would come sometimes for my birthday, or at Christmas, and my mother, whose material circumstances were very much more comfortable than those of my father and his new family, would patronize them and condole with my stepmother on my father’s drinking habits and the undisciplined weeping of her little boy. The girl bade fair to be pretty but fortunately was extremely dim.

For anyone interested, The Summer House was made into a highly entertaining film starring Jeanne Moreau, Julie Walters, and Joan Plowright.

9 Comments

Filed under Ellis, Alice Thomas, Fiction

Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean

“Look, I’m not the sort who goes around shagging willy-nilly like that.”

After finishing The Tartar Steppe, I needed a complete change of pace–preferably something funny. I stood there staring at my overcrowded shelves and then I saw Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean. I’d bought this book after reading a glowing review of Dean’s latest book, The Old Romantic at A Common Reader. The cover looked promising–two deck chairs (not exactly positioned to indicate compatibility) on the beach. Surely I told myself, Becoming Strangers would be light and funny, right?

Becoming Strangers has its light, funny sections (mostly mined from scenes of marriage and adultery), but it’s also about death and dying. The first few pages reveal Jan–a Belgium man in his 50s whose six-year battle with cancer has reached its final lap. He’s been told it’s inoperable (it has spread to his liver and pancreas), and that nothing more can be done. In a sombre scene, his two adult sons arrive with tickets for Jan and his wife, Annemieke to an expensive, Caribbean resort. “This was going to be their last holiday.” That simple short sentence made a depressing impact, and on that note, I went to bed.

Well so much for light and funny.

The next day brought a flush of optimism and the memory of how much Tom at A Common Reader enjoyed Dean’s other novel, so I picked up Becoming Strangers once again and was very glad I did. Dean’s novel is funny, yet sad & serious–a powerful combination which offers an unusual look at marriage’s till-death-do-us-part phase.

The main character is Jan–a man whose life hasn’t been easy for the past few years, but there’s one thing that’s served him well through illness and operation after operation, and that’s his belief that “good manners” go a long way. He treats everyone with the same degree of courtesy–from his appalling wife, Annemieke, to his concerned doctors and his dutiful sons–they all get the same treatment. This polite distancing is how Jan deals with his imminent death, but no one seems to notice that this is Jan’s coping mechanism–a buoy that enables him to float (with the help of morphine) through the last few months.

Unfortunately Jan isn’t treated with the same courtesy he extends to others. The main culprit here is Annemieke–a woman who at 49 is bursting with life and health and who is fed up with waiting for her husband to die. She’s also desperate to not appear to be her age, and that includes some outrageously funny and obnoxious sexual behaviour. Normally, a “last holiday” would be filled with poignancy and sadness, but when Jan and Annemieke land at the resort, she hits the ground running:

“She was going to have a holiday that suited her. She would make the most of the spa. Her own health deserved some attention. Hadn’t the doctors said that it’s often the carer’s well-being that gets completely neglected.”

 Annemieke has no intention of wasting time hanging out with Jan, and his feeble attempts to go sightseeing are met with nimble avoidance:

“I thought we might make an excursion, he said pleasantly. We could hire a car. Have a look round the island.”

“I’m not a sightseer, Jan,” she said, “as you know.”

She gave herself a good wash; she wanted to feel just right when she lay down on that massage couch. These indulgences were fraught in so many ways. Money and time ticking away while you tried to feel good. An indifferent masseur or beautician, an unpleasant manner, a painfully deep rub or treatment, thin towels, or the sight of herself, under bright lights in a full-length mirror–any of these could ruin it.

He was standing when she left.

“We might have lunch together” he said.

“You look after yourself, I shouldn’t want to hold you up.”

Annemieke, on a mission to prove her sexual attractiveness, prowls around the resort, and when she’s not milking her husband’s illness for sympathy, she’s showing off her breasts as often as possible. She strikes up an acquaintance with a couple of Americans, Jason and Missy while Jan is drawn to an elderly British couple, George and his wife Dorothy. Jan and George, bound to lives they don’t quite connect with, form an unlikely relationship:

“She wasn’t keen to come, the missus,” he admitted to Jan. “She’s a stay-at-home sort. She’s sitting in the room now. Blimey, we might as well be at home. She’s got her book and a cup of tea, she’s all right. I’ve always had to drag her along with me to whatever we did. She wasn’t always a homebody but she’s got worse lately, likes to sit on her arse all day; thinking she says she is, or reading,”  he raised his eyebrows and sighed. “Always seems as if she’s on the same page.”

“I suppose my wife feels the same way about me,” Jan said, finishing his drink.

“Oh yes?”

“Sure. I also like my own company.”

“I’m not sure that’s the case with the old girl. Sometimes it’s hard to get through to someone even if you’ve known them your whole life. The years seem to make it harder, as a matter of fact. Like you’ve found thousands of ways to get around them, detours, you know, road closed, follow diversion. Do you know what I mean?”

There are so many wonderful scenes in this book, and I can’t describe them all, but my favourite section occurs when Annemieke goes off with Jason and Missy on a yacht while Jan leaves with George & Dorothy, and fellow guests Laurie and born-again christian Bill Moloney. Jan’s wonderful day is contrasted with Annemieke’s experience listening to Jason waffle on with his obsession: locking people up.

 Another marvellous aspect of the novel is its characters. One of my favourites is poor beleaguered resort manager (“Total Experience Manager”), Steve Burns. While Jan opts to maintain his relationships through polite, distanced behaviour, Steve is forced to wear the same polite mask with the guests. He’s forced to walk a very thin line between keeping the guests happy and keeping his job, and the pushy American guest, Jason, treats Burns with scorn at every opportunity. As events at the resort play out, and the behaviour of the guests degenerates, Steve, who isn’t particularly likeable, finds his job increasingly difficult and repugnant at times with this load of holidaymakers:

Burns felt like a fruit, handing out leaflets, drawing pencilled circles on maps, reminding the punters of the Saturday night events they left the hotel. He’d spotted two women of a more mature persuasion, ‘Silvers’ as they called them in the business, passing comment on him from their huddled position in two cane armchairs, looking at him over their fishing expedition leaflets. He’d asked if he could help them and heard snorts of laughter as he’d walked away. He’d fucking sashayed, he was sure of it, it was the trousers, and then he’d turned around like some Butlin’s poof and told them off with a very camp, ‘now, now ladies, none of that. it was a loathsome business at times.

Holidays are peculiar things. So much is invested in making them a good experience and holidaymakers are supposed to go home with good memories along with the customary souvenirs. Holidays also have a way of highlighting problems in relationships–after all, some relationships are unravelling and forced intimacy isn’t going to help. Becoming Strangers explores the forced interactions, the relationships which grow from proximity, and the behaviour of the guests who feel unleashed far from home.

Some people may not enjoy this novel. There’s no resolution and the plot tosses together some elements that are not ‘handled’ in a traditional way–more power to Louise Dean, I say.  The sharp inner dialogues blend well with the outward behaviour of these diverse characters and the roles they’ve long tired of.

10 Comments

Filed under Dean Louise

Damage by Josephine Hart

The surface remained untroubled, but the ground was beginning to be less firm under my feet. A fault long hidden was being revealed. There was the smallest, briefest tremor, barely worth recording. But the pain that shot through me was so intense, I knew real damage was being done.

When it comes to films based on books, I don’t expect the film version to doggedly follow the book. Under the best of circumstances, the film version will capitalise on certain elements–the visual for example, to build mood or perspective while adding depth & understanding to the source material.  Some characters are minimized for the narrative ; others are expanded while some disappear entirely. When I say that I am often disappointed in the film versions of book, I expect I’m fairly typical, but the frequent disappointment doesn’t dim my enthusiasm. When there’s a payoff there’s usually a big payoff, and that brings me to Damage by Irish author, Josephine Hart.

The film version of Damage had all the elements that led me to believe I’d really enjoy it: director Louis Malle, a seductive Juliette Binoche and a suitably tortured Jeremy Irons.  This film has its fans, but for some reason, I’m not one of them. I didn’t care about the characters and I was hoping they’d get it over with, do me a favour and just shoot themselves. So I approached the book with a little skepticism. Would I dislike it as much as I disliked the film? Amazon reviews were a preponderance of 5 star reviews, but the readers who loathed the book expressed sentiments that I connected to the film. This nailed the decision that I had to read Damage.

Damage is narrated by a fifty-year-old married doctor who has a London-based practice and a fairly new political career. His attractive wife Ingrid is the daughter of a very wealthy, very conservative politician Edward Thompson, and the narrator and his wife have two adult children together–Martyn and Sally. While the narrator’s marriage is a success according to all definitions of the word, to the narrator there’s something missing….

That something–which could be described as a gap or a need–appears to be met when the narrator meets his son’s older girlfriend, Anna. Twenty-five-year-old Martyn has had a regular “blatantly casual” stream of girlfriends but Anna is different. Physically she’s not Martyn’s usual type (in the past he’s gone for blondes while Anne is brunette) but there’s some undefinable quality to her. Is there an air of secretiveness? Ingrid tells her husband that Anna makes her feel “uneasy” and she expresses the hope that Anna is just another girlfriend passing through.

But the narrator, who’s never named, makes a silent connection with Anna the moment they meet, and the two soon fall into a passionate, insane affair. Given Anna’s relationship to Martyn, it’s fairly easy to predict that this affair is going to have disastrous consequences, and the story of what happens builds with a sense of impending doom. The narrator and Anna are appallingly cruel and selfish to all the people they supposedly care about. They justify every deception and continue their corrosive affair even while Martyn announces his engagement to Anna. 

The novel is intimately narrated by the unnamed doctor in flashback mode through short chapters stuffed full of romantic and sexual hyperbole. The use of language underscores the idea that the narrator thinks he’s involved in some great, grand passion, when the reality is really something quite tawdry. Damage is so intensely interesting because of its naked, unflinching honesty. That honesty is at times repellent, but it’s still unsparing in its details of the narrator’s utter selfishness, his complete obsession and unrestrained self-destructive plunge into a strange, ultimately unsatisfying affair with a “damaged” young woman. The narrator is a character who’s managed to avoid unpleasantries for first fifty years of his life, a man who’s always made the so-called ‘right’ decisions and to the outside world he seems to be the epitome of ‘stable':

I never faced a serious moral dilemma. Nothing that I felt or said was extreme or left me out on a limb.

One of the subjects the narrator discusses early in the novel is his ability to be dominated and manipulated. While he describes himself as largely untouched by emotion (which explains his lack of familial attachment) he admits that “I acted those parts required of me, like some professional member of a good English repertory company.” His father, a wealthy businessman, bragged that his success was due in no small part to his willpower, but it seems that the narrator inherited little of his father’s fortitude.  He recalls how he was manipulated by Ingrid and his father-in-law into politics. As with every other aspect of his life, he is tepid about politics, but his father-in-law and Ingrid appear to have colluded to get their wish. After he’s agreed to enter politics, the narrator wonders:

 After years of carefully watching every move I made in order to avoid being dominated by the own father, I now found myself about to embark on a whole new course of life, because my  father-in-law had flattered me into it.

And later:

Had they found me so easy to manipulate? Or was my guard so low with them, as with everyone, because I thought myself unknown by anyone and unthreatened?

The affair with Anna starts with very little defined relationship between the two participants. They meet, have wild sex, and soon Anna is setting the rules and boundaries of the affair. While she claims that the narrator is her “master,” she manipulates and controls her married lover until he’s little more than her randy ill-behaved pet dog.

In gut-wrenching passages the narrator describes his anguish at being apart from Anna, but he never stops to think about how his behaviour may impact the other compartments of his life–his marriage, his role as a parent, and his professional and political careers. Instead the narrator increasingly loses control of his life as all other aspects, except the affair, fade into insignficance. His appalling lack of attachment to his family is more than made up for by his dogged pursuit of Anna. Here’s the narrator and Anna as he rather pathetically tries to negotiate some control over the relationship:

“But you spoke of surrender, of being ruled.”

“It is my surrender that makes you ruler. You must accept this. If you fight, or try to change the pieces on the board, or to design a scenario more acceptable to you, you will be lost. Kneel down before me now, and I shall be your slave.”

And so I did, in the room in which I had first lain with her. Is it important which way I tried to take her? Which entrance? And whether with tongue or hand or penis? Did she lie or stand? Was her back to me or to the wall? Were her hands free or bound? Did she see my face or not?

The emphasis on details–or lack thereof–underscores the narrator’s desire to freeze the scenes in his memory, but at the same time he appears to acknowledge that the details really matter little or even blur. Some of the very best scenes in the book involve Anna’s relationships with her family. She makes her father uncomfortable, and her mother devolves into giddy stream-of-consciousness conversation giveaways. Anna’s stepfather, a famous writer, is the only relative who doesn’t have an urge to run, but this seems to stem from his interest in her as a study in human behaviour.

One of the other characters in the novel asks if Anna is “mad or evil?” And I think most readers will land on one or other of those definitions. Some readers might find the narrator’s choice of language which is fraught with romantic clichés annoying–I didn’t. The narrator seems to think he’s telling the confessional tale of an aged Romeo and his Juliet, and while that’s misguided, the narrator’s language is a window to his muddied thinking. Then again there are so many things the narrator doesn’t ‘get.’  I loathe romances, but Damage doesn’t qualify as a romance; it’s an exercise in deception, self-deception, manipulation and self-loathing. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to have known an “Anna” (and I’ve watched three in destructive action as they’ve moved like hurricanes through the lives of innocent bystanders), then Damage hits a nerve. Ultimately Damage is a study in human nature,  a tremendously compelling, compulsive read that explores sexual obsession and the attraction to destructive relationships.

On a final note, the book reminded me of a quote from Woody Allen’s film Husbands and Wives. One of the characters, a male depressive called Gabe (played by Woody Allen) admits that he’s “always had this penchant for kamikaze women…I call them kamikaze because they crash their plane into you. You die with them.” Was Anna the narrator’s accident-waiting-to-happen? Did he in some dark devious way liberate himself from a life to which he had no emotional attachment? Was Anna his rebellion? There is little sympathy from this reader for the narrator but then again, I don’t think he expects it or needs it.

 Damage is courtesy of the publisher Open Road Media through Netgalley (an e-book read on my Kindle)

10 Comments

Filed under Hart Josephine

The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore

“It’s books, of course, that you got all your notions from. Not from real life. All those novels and trash that’s up there in your room at home. I wonder sometimes if some if these authors who write that stuff shouldn’t be prosecuted. or maybe we should hand out prescriptions for books the way we do for drugs. Not to be taken by mouth. Not for people who can’t read right from wrong. Yes. Because you’re not the heroine of some bloody book.”

It’s probably a big mistake to return to the same city, the same hotel and the same suite you spent your honeymoon in 16 years earlier. If you agree with that statement, you should also agree with the idea that it’s downright careless, stupid, insensitive or cruel to send the wife off on what amounts to a  second honeymoon alone. But that’s just what happens in Brian Moore’s novel The Doctor’s Wife.

Attractive 37 -year-old Sheila Redden arrives in Paris from Belfast. The plan is that she’s to spend the night with Peg, an old friend from university, and then fly on alone to Villefranche where her husband, Kevin, is to join her the next day. In Paris, Sheila meets Peg’s new boyfriend, Ivo and a young American named Tom Lowry. There’s an immediate attraction between Sheila and Tom, and then circumstances lead to them spending a few pleasant hours together.  

Later that evening, a phone call between Kevin and Sheila reveals the underlying pathology of the Reddens’ marriage. Kevin announces, without a shred of regret but with a large dose of self-righteousness, that he’s volunteered to work for the next few days and that Sheila must spend at least the first part of their holiday alone.  He says he’ll join her in a few days:

“But why? They take advantage of you, time and time again. You’re always the one who works extra days. Surely just this once, they’ll have the decency to let you get away in peace.”

“Look, nobody forced me, it was my idea. And besides, it’s just for two more days.”

“But this is our holiday! We’ve been looking forward to it for ages.”

“You have,”  he said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means, will you stop nagging me. I’ll be in Villefranche on Friday. Just enjoy yourself and lie out in the sun. You don’t need me for that.”

“So you won’t be coming before Friday, is that it?”

“Let’s say Friday night. I’ll give you a ring.”

“Why bother?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you don’t want to come on this holiday, then don’t. You’ll be far happier sitting at home, stuck into the telly.”

“Oh balls.” He was shouting now. “We can’t all live like you, ignoring the facts of life, dancing in the dark.”

It was his oldest jibe. Dancing in the dark. “Suit yourself,” she said.

“I’ll be there on Friday night. Look I’m sorry it turned out like this.”

“You’re not one bit sorry,” she said and hung up.

With the conversation still ringing in her ears, Sheila asks herself  “what did he think a woman did alone in the South of France.” And that, of course becomes the crux of the story. Sheila leaves Paris with some regret and flies to Villefranche. Tom follows her and so begins a passionate affair….

While this is a story of an affair, the backdrop is the story of a marriage–although that doesn’t become apparent until later. I wasn’t sure what I was going to get when I started The Doctor’s Wife--a book I came to courtesy of Asylum and John Self’s Moore-a-thon. I reasoned that if this blogger went to the trouble of reviewing 8 books by Brian Moore, then I might be missing out if I didn’t try this author. So I went looking for Moore’s books. Most of them are out-of-print and in the fading-out-of-view phase. New York Review Books, however, recently republished The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne reviewed here. After reading that Graham Greene claimed Moore as his “favourite living novelist,” no slight recommendation there, I decided this was more positive press for Moore, but then again both writers had that catholic thing going.  When I read the synopsis of The Doctor’s Wife, I winced at the possibilities of adultery, sin and guilt and hoped that I wasn’t about to step into a book that wheeled in a priest to solve the protagonist’s dilemma. I shouldn’t have troubled myself about Moore’s abilities. The Doctor’s Wife is written with incredible sensitivity towards its main character, Sheila Redden.

As the title suggests Sheila Redden is largely seen as an appendage to her husband, and just who or what she is remains tantalizingly and deliberately vague. This is a woman who never used her university education and whose husband views her with no small degree of contempt.  In a flashback of a particularly painful domestic scene Kevin accuses her of flirtations with their male friend, Brian, and Kevin tells Sheila that when it comes to men  “you make an absolute fool of yourself”  It escalates:

Kevin kept after her, mimicking her, mimicking Brian’s English accent, showing how she got excited when Brian talked about books, and then Kevin started to sing ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ making fun of her, and it was the most awful, hateful, hurtful row, malicious he was, he wouldn’t stop.

Subtly, unobtrusively, The Doctor’s Wife examines the politics of marriage: the power plays, the avoidance, the corrosive rot and decay of years of petty comments between two people who were never compatible in the first place and who are now divided by a chasm of dislike and resentment.

Catholicism does enter the tale but without an absolutist presence. A priest is wheeled in but he somewhat disconcertingly quotes Sartre instead of quoting god.

One of the strongest points that the novel makes is in its connections between the past, the present, and an unknown shadowy future. Stella makes inevitable, solitary comparisons between the original honeymoon and the bitter present.  The differences between the two periods in Stella’s life are striking, and she is left with the sad, yet angry acknowledgement that Kevin would rather find excuses to work than spend a week with his wife in Nice. But this is a comparison of the past and the present. In one passage Sheila calls home and as the phone rings, she conjures up the vision of her home–her life but without her in it:

She heard the phone ringing at home and thought of the black receiver sitting on the worn whorled top of the monk’s bench in the hall below the carved elephant tusks, which held an old brass dinner gong once owned by Kevin’s grandfather. The phone rang and rang. But she knew they were there, sitting in the den at the back, stuck in with the damned telly. 

 The plot addresses the idea that in the past people tolerated miserable mortal life because they expected a payoff after death. Along with this notion of heaven as a payoff for good behaviour, of course goes the idea that sin brings the price of damnation. This idea of the tradeoffs between lives (mortal and immortal) is complemented by Sheila’s belief that another sort of life might be possible.  Sheila’s brother, Owen Deane, who wrestles with his own domestic troubles, wobbles on the arguments of sin, and he realises that while these arguments may have worked in the past, somehow they now seem redundant. To Owen, Sheila voices the thought that:

People escape from their lives . Did you ever read those newspaper stories about the man who walks out of his house saying he’s going down to the corner to buy cigarettes? And he’s never heard from again.

The Doctor’s Wife is a stunning book, a lean, understated tale, full of gray areas of ambiguity that address notions of conformity and habit within the context of an unhappy marriage. I found the book impossible to put down.

18 Comments

Filed under Moore Brian