Tag Archives: miserable marriages

In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower

I was attracted to the strangeness of his mind as a psychiatrist might have been drawn to an interesting case. He wanted a resident analyst. Neither of us understood.”  

In Certain Circles, Australian author Elizabeth Harrower follows the intertwined  lives of four characters, two sets of siblings from vastly different economic circumstances, from youth to middle age. Siblings Stephen and Anna Quayle are orphaned after their parents are killed in a railroad crossing accident. Subsequently brought up by an intensely distracted uncle and his neurotic invalid wife, Stephen and Anna both learn that life isn’t a golden opportunity as much as a series of insurmountable obstacles. In contrast to Stephen and Anna are the Howards, siblings Russell and Zoe. The Howards, a prominent Sydney family, are educated, affluent and influential people, and Elizabeth Harrower explores the two dynamics of the Haves and the Have-nots, and shows that growing up with privilege and love cushions and cocoons, and yet sometimes can also be its own handicap in unexpected ways. In certain circlesWhen the novel begins, Zoe is seventeen, and her brother Russell is now home after some years in a POW camp. Russell, already altered by the death of two close friends in a swimming accident, returns from war and “proceeded to alarm and disappoint his parents by refusing to involve himself in any of the activities they felt him suited to.” Russell is subdued, controlled and it’s clear that there are strong emotional undercurrents hidden beneath the surface of his calm demeanor, so while he’s actually adrift, he covers this well. Outwardly Russell doesn’t present too many concerns; there are two constants in his life: his close friendship with Stephen Quayle and his relationship with Lily. The Howards approve of Lily, a lecturer in German, a woman of their social circle and a neighbor. She’s considered ‘good’ for Russell. Stephen introduces Zoe to his friends, Stephen and Anna, and he asks Zoe to befriend 15-year-old Anna. Zoe isn’t used to being around people outside of her family’s social sphere, and the “signs of want” in Anna’s cheap clothing “were repellent.” But since Zoe loves her brother Russell, she makes a few weak attempts to befriend Anna noting that “it was awkward to know people who had less money and no proper home.” Meanwhile, Zoe finds herself strangely attracted to Stephen, “a weird irascible character out of some dense Russian novel.” Zoe’s attempts to befriend Anna are reluctant and spurred by the desire to please others. In one painful scene, she attempts to give Anna some discarded clothing, and the offer backfires:

Up off the chair, Anna shot, her eyes growing larger by the second. She backed away, saying, ‘I don’t need anything.’ As if she had unwittingly fired a revolver point blank at someone she’d never seen before, Zoe’s own eyes and face opened with a sort of belated, reciprocal shock. ‘I know you don’t need anything. You’d be doing me a favour. One of my ratty ideas. Stay here while I get us some coffee. We both missed out in all the turmoil down there.’ Escaped, dropping from stair to stair, she gave a series of low groans, not having to imagine self-indulgently what it might be like to be Anna. This small blow was in addition to the rest of her life, Suffering, endurance, were things that Zoe herself knew nothing about, except through art, and because of Russell. And even that, what she had seen and read that pushed her beyond her own experience, had the very impact, she realized now, of watching an experiment in chemistry, never having studied the subject.

Of the four main characters Zoe, Russell, Stephen, Anna–five if we count the neurotic Lily, only Zoe has the capacity for happiness. She’s uncomplicated and thanks to her privileged childhood, she doesn’t grasp how difficult life can be. The introduction of Stephen and Anna into Zoe’s world casts a shadow onto her simplistic view of life, and she cannot understand why Stephen has a menial job, or why he doesn’t go to university. This lack of understanding springs partly from Zoe’s youth, but also partly because she doesn’t want to leave the “pink marshmallow castle of her life.”

She was too young to be thoughtful, or interested in someone else’s problems. She felt a huge impatience at this unwarranted check to her self-absorption and happy conceit and ambition. So they had all had more troubles than she. Did that really make them superior? If two men were walking along the street and a brick fell on one, missing the other, did that make the injured one a better person? All he had learned was what it was like to have a brick fall on his head. It had happened to him. Why make a virtue of it?

The plot allows us to see both sides of the Want-Equation: Stephen’s bitterness that other people have privileged lives, and Anna’s sagacious realization that adversity doesn’t necessarily make people ‘better.’ Of all the characters in the novel, Anna seems to grasp the painful, touchy dynamics of the Haves and the Have-Nots–with one side exhibiting their largesse, and the other side showing their gratitude.

You can admire the way someone meets hard circumstances, but you can’t admire him because of them.

We follow the troubled lives of Zoe, Russell, Stephen and Anna for several decades–through marriages & love affairs, and these are lives in which duty, pity and obligation play large roles. As one character admits: “If we lived forever, there would be time to recover from mistakes of twenty years duration.” These are not happy people, and when it comes to the intelligent observations of the minutiae of marital politics, author Elizabeth Harrower has a painfully fine, unflinching eye. Conversations between those trapped in marriage are laced with the undercurrents of lashing criticism, and we see three examples of how years spent under a subtle domination directed by invalidism, neuroticism, or bitterness can effectively erode the personality, confidence and willpower of the less-dominant spouses. Even though this sort of marital dominance is clearly seen in others (the relationship between Anna & Stephen’s aunt and uncle, is one example), other characters seem unable to avoid similar traps, and over the decades, we see misery gradually descend and dominate two other marriages. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the book’s ending which seemed to wrap things up far too conveniently for a couple of the characters after an implausible deus-ex machina event, but that’s not the part that stays with me. The part that remains is the lingering unhappiness. This is my second Harrower novel, but there will be more. For Lisa’s review go here

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God is an Astronaut by Alyson Foster

Epistolary novels were tremendously popular in the 18th century, and now we’re seeing an emergence of the e-pistolary–a novel told exclusively though e-mails. In the case of Alyson Foster’s novel, God is an Astronaut, the e-mails are one-sided; they’re written  over the course of a few months from married Botany professor, Jessica Frobisher to her “favorite colleague” and fellow professor Arthur Danielson, who is on sabbatical in the “wilds north of Winnipeg.” Jessica pours her private thoughts into the e-mails to Arthur while she shares a lot less with her emotionally distant husband, Liam, the senior engineer for Spaceco, a shuttle company with a long waiting list of commercial passengers who want to travel into space.

astronautJessica, or Jess as she prefers to be called, begins writing e-mails to Arthur a few days after the explosion of the Spaceco shuttle Titan which resulted in the deaths of the two crew members and four passengers. With reporters camped out in the driveway, and Liam travelling back and forth to Arizona to the Spaceco launch site, Jess is left to her own devices. The shuttle explosion heralds disaster for Jess’s marriage–a marriage already in trouble and locked into a “passive-aggressive standoff.” Jess admits “we have no shortage of skeletons in our marital closets–the predictable collection of festering specimens, the things that go bump in the night, etc.” She begins an e-mail exchange with Arthur, and also begins long-delayed work on a greenhouse.  While the physical labour of digging trenches is a satisfying distraction, the e-mails to Arthur reveal Jess’s private, candid thoughts. Liam is entrenched in the details of the shuttle explosion and the subsequent media storm, and for Jess, under scrutiny from the neighbours and colleagues, the e-mails to Arthur seem to be the one way she can express her real feelings and moral concerns about the shuttle explosion. Troubled and yet trying to hold her life and home together for her two children, Jess admits to Arthur: “There’s something about trying to sum up your own take on a terrible truth.”

While Liam tells Jess not to speak to reporters camped outside (“the CNN crew had some sort of miniature grill out, and they were barbecuing what appeared to be breakfast sausages,”) she is required to show solidarity with her husband and other Spaceco executives and wives. Spaceco hires a pushy crisis consultant who orders Jess to dress a certain way for the press conference:

she finally settled on the least objectionable outfit she could find, that green silk suit I wear once a year when I’m presenting at a conference, the one you said makes me look like a woman playing a politician in a mini-series.

Much to Jess’s annoyance, Liam invites filmmaker Theo Lacroix and his latest wife Elle back to Michigan in order to make a documentary film about Spaceco. Lacroix has a habit to popping up at the most inconvenient moments with his camera, and Jess finds that Lacroix’s presence in her home is unsettling. How much does he see and understand? Here’s Jess explaining to Arthur her exchange with Lecroix after telling him that she retained her maiden name:

But he didn’t seem offended. “Ah,” he said, “A woman after my own heart. I wouldn’t allow any of my wives to take my name. ‘Get your own,’ I said.”

He bent down, picked up my ergonomic shovel, and inspected it. “Besides you never know when you might have to change it back. And then there will be all that bureaucratic nonsense and—” he waved his hand dismissively. “It is all very tiresome. When it comes to marriage, most people are very … What is the correct word? Unrealistic. It is better to be prepared.”

It was impossible to tell, Arthur, whether he was bullshitting me or not. “That’s a great philosophy,” I said. “I bet all your wives really loved it.”

“They understood. Some of them sooner than others.” Lacroix flicked a piece of dirt from the sleeve of his sweater. “They were smart women,” he said. “And beautiful.” He sighed with a touch of what I assumed was nostalgia.

 Jess’s voice is engaging, lightly humorous in tone and very real, but the e-mails occasionally do not sound like e-mails at all. Ok, so perhaps not everyone knocks off short e-mails, and perhaps some of us wax poetic, but sometimes the writing here is just too good to be a believable e-mail.  Conversely, there are also times when the e-mails seem to be a false construction:

I shut the laptop. I left the bathrobe in a puddle on the kitchen tile. Still half naked, I walked through the living room and up to the bedroom.

At other times, Jess is describing a dramatic event, and divides it into several long e-mails, and again, this felt a little false. I read some reviews in which people expressed frustration that the e-mails were just one-sided. Actually I liked that aspect of the novel because I had to read between the lines, and also pay close attention to the subject header topic which was the best way to gauge Arthur’s response. Plus on a deeper level, just what is Arthur to Jess? A colleague or something more? Over time, of course, we learn the truth which was easy to guess almost from the first e-mail, but even when the truth is finally revealed, it’s clear that Arthur served many purposes for Jess, and here he is as a sounding board as Jess rides out the greatest crisis of her life.

I particularly liked the way in which Jess is shown avoiding dealing with reality through the distraction of her greenhouse, and at one point she even describes the space beyond the dining room designated for the new greenhouse as “an escape hatch.” Liam disapproves of the project, mumbling about their “sasquatch-size carbon footprint,” which is hypocritical given what he does for a living, and there’s the sense that he disapproves of a great deal to do with Jess. Perhaps she finally begins construction of her greenhouse, not only as a meaningful distraction, but as a type of defiance. After all, she buys many exotic, delicate plants with the plan that they will defy the Michigan winter in this superb construction and, as Lecroix, points out, with her “ruthless gardening.”  God is an Astronaut, a light read,  is well-written and engaging. Author Alyson Foster captures that period of disintegration in a marriage when both partners are aware that the relationship is pathological, but neither chooses to acknowledge the problems. Yet.

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The Man Who Loved His Wife by Vera Caspary

In Vera Caspary’s wonderful autobiography The Secrets of Grown-Ups, she detailed her interesting life, her struggles and her mistakes with intelligent sensitivity and just a touch of humility. I read The Secrets of Grown-Ups after reading both Laura (the book she’s most remembered for) and Bedelia. Like Laura, Bedelia was also made into a film, but while Laura makes many of those top-film lists, the film version of Bedelia has almost faded from view. Bedelia, incidentally, a wonderfully pathological tale of a female serial killer, is the book that convinced me to read Vera Caspary’s autobiography. And this brings me to The Man Who Loved His Wife, the story of a married couple whose life together changes drastically after the husband is diagnosed with cancer.

Fletcher Strode is a virile, affluent confident married wealthy businessman, at the prime of life at age 42 when he meets and falls in love with beautiful photographer’s model, Elaine Guardino, 19 years his junior. They meet by chance in a restaurant, fall in love, and three weeks later, Strode asks his wife for a divorce. His marriage wasn’t exactly on the rocks before he met Elaine, but it’s more or less a sham marriage with his wife and daughter living in the New Jersey suburbs while Strode leads a bachelor life (with other women) in New York. Strode marries Elaine 24 hrs. after getting a divorce.

the man who loved his wifeEveryone predicts doom for Strode and his new wife. Could be that age difference or perhaps it’s the whirlwind romance, but it’s initially a very happy marriage, full of passion, sex, and money, and then 5 years later, Strode is diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. Strode’s larynx is removed, and he’s told that if the disease is discovered early, and treated aggressively, chances of survival are excellent. Unfortunately, Strode doesn’t grasp the physical and more importantly the psychological impact of the surgery. With his body still whole, Strode mentally minimizes the effects of the operation:

The loss of his vocal apparatus would be compensated for by different mechanics of sound production. His voice would be stilled for a time, but when the wound was sufficiently healed, he would learn to control a different set of muscles and would be able to speak in an altered voice. Examples were quoted to him, statistics read, stories told of patients who had overcome trauma and gone on with their work, enjoyed sports, eaten heartily, and made love to women.

During the mute period after the operation, he had been eager and positive that he would soon acquire a new voice. A breezy, self-confident man entered his hospital room to tell him, hoarsely, that many of those who had suffered the same operation had been able to return to work within a few weeks. This man, who had lost his voice box several years earlier, promised that with practice and patience, Fletcher would be able to speak as well as he did. Hell, I’ll do a lot better, Fletcher told himself. Thinking of the success he had achieved in business, the money he had made, the obstacles overcome, he knew himself the better man. He was both contemptuous of and amused by those sympathetic friends who, visiting him at the hospital, shouted at him or whispered, using their lips extravagantly as though he were deaf.

I’ll show them.

After he left hospital, optimism collapsed. There were too many changes. Smell and taste returned slowly and were never as keen as they had been. He had to breathe through a hole in his neck, a wound that could never be allowed to close now that his windpipe had been removed, there was no connection between the mouth and the nose with the lungs. He had to cough, sneeze, and blow his nose through this opening. There would be no more swimming for him, nor could he step into the shower carelessly. His loud and boisterous laugh was silenced forever. Every action required adjustment. Encounters with old friends left him morbid. Strangers appalled him. Going out became a nightmare.

Ironically, this is a situation in which Strode’s money works against him. If he needed to make a living in order to put food on the table, perhaps he would have pushed himself, made the best of a bad break, and got on with his life, but his amassed fortune allows him to stop working. He lacks the patience for voice therapy, and can’t stand this new social arrangement with him the student while others–healthy, full-bodied people he despises, teach him how to make sounds.

Fury and frustration robbed him of what little voice he had acquired. When he forgot himself and tried to shout in the old, authoritative manners, he could utter nothing but a string of unintelligible sounds.

He sells all of his business concerns, leaves New York, and with Elaine, moves to California.

It doesn’t take long before Strode’s marriage becomes more and more toxic. Elaine, still in her 20s, married a vigorous, passionate, energetic man, but now he’s resentful of the healthy, has become a recluse, and has a hair-trigger temper. Sinking into depression, Strode hates his new self, and obsessed with thoughts that Elaine, still young, beautiful, and whole, will find new lovers and remarry after his death, he begins a diary in which he pours his twisted thoughts. This is a diary of his suspicions and also his darkest fantasies; it’s in this diary that he relates his version of events and also his fantasies that Elaine will make his murder look like suicide….

The novel’s premise is extraordinary and is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith for its claustrophobic toxicity. The plot captures, with intense psychological insight, this rat-trap of marital circumstance, diminished expectations, and twisted resentment. Those marriage vows include the ‘sickness and in health’ provision, yet when Elaine married Strode, he was a completely different human being able to offer her a glamorous, romantic life. We bring our character and personality to any illness and disease; some people sink to their worst selves when faced with their morality, and this is the case with Strode.

The characters in the novel are mostly unpleasant, and the secondary characters could have benefitted from a little subtlety; there’s the feeling, from certain sentences, that Caspary couldn’t stand those secondary characters even as she shows empathy for Strode’s tortured psyche.  Strode’s selfish, immature daughter from his first marriage, Cindy, and her ne’er-do-well, sly hanger-on of a husband, unemployed lawyer Don arrive in California and move in for an extended vacation.  These two characters are so vicious & superficial, they just manage to veer away from caricature. The novel’s premise is extremely clever and unfortunately the very necessary characters of Don and Cindy (& Sgt Knight) don’t match the level of the subtle, sophisticated plot. They didn’t need to be quite this overtly venal, so transparent, or in the case of Sgt. Knight, so one-dimensional, and if their characters had been toned down a notch, they would be more appropriate to this otherwise fascinating book.

 

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A Woman of Thirty by Balzac

Balzac’s flawed novel, A Woman of Thirty, is essentially a character study of a woman named Julie who makes incorrect choices, ruins her life and the consequences of those choices to her children. The plot starts off very well but then loses its focus, finally wandering into dodgy soap territory laced with coincidence. The story title implies that we will see Julie as a woman of thirty, and it’s true, we do see Julie as an unhappy thirty-year-old, but the story spans over thirty years and continues until 1844 when Julie is about 50. Balzac draws a portrait of a miserable marriage–a marriage of unequal sensibilities. Julie is an intelligent, sensitive woman paired with a man of mediocre talents which are masked by his rank and wealth. The observations Balzac makes on this subject were worth a post of their own, and while A Woman of Thirty is flawed, it has moments of sheer Balzac brilliance.

The story opens in 1813, April, on “a morning which gave promise of one those bright days when Parisians, for the first time in the year, behold dry pavement underfoot and a cloudless sky overhead.” This perfect weather is a glorious backdrop for the spectacle about to take place at the Tuileries–a “magnificent review” of Napoleon’s forces just before he sets out on  “upon the disastrous campaign” which ended in Napoleon’s defeat. Balzac specifically tells us which battles will be won and which battles will be lost, but all this is in the future as crowds, pumped up with patriotism, gather to watch the colourful “military manoeuvres.”

In the crowd is a beautiful young girl named Julie who’s excitedly dragging her father along to watch the spectacle. It’s clear that she’s there to see someone very specific–Colonel Victor D’Aiglemont. Julie cannot hide her emotions, and her father, guessing that his daughter is in love, warns her not to marry D’Aiglemont. Julie argues, and her father predicts only misery if Julie insists on marrying this man:

Girls are apt to imagine noble and enchanting and totally imaginary figures in their own minds; they have fanciful extravagant ideas about men, and sentiment, and life; and then they innocently endow somebody or other with all the perfections of their day-dreams and put their trust in him. They fall in love with this imaginary creature in the man of their choice; and then, when it is too late to escape from their fate, behold their first idol, the illusion made fair with their fancies, turns to an odious skeleton. Julie, I would rather you fall in love with an old man than with the colonel. Ah! If you could but see things from the standpoint of ten years hence, you would admit that my old experience was right. I know what Victor is, that gaiety of his is simply animal spirits–the gaiety of the barracks. He has no ability, and he is a spendthrift. He is one of those men whom Heaven created to eat and digest four meals a day, to sleep, to fall in love with the first woman that comes to hand, and to fight. He does not understand life. His kind heart, for he has a kind heart, will perhaps lead him to give his purse to a sufferer or a comrade; but he is careless, he has not the delicacy of heart which makes us slaves to a woman’s happiness, he is ignorant, he is selfish. There are plenty of buts–

After this initial scene, each of the subsequent periodic glimpses into Julie’s life reveal the consequences of the choices she made in the previous section. The opening sequence shows Napoleon’s armies gathering, the final glories of the Napoleonic Empire just as it’s about to fall. Interestingly, Balzac parallels this by placing Julie on the brink of her life–about to make a disastrous choice in falling for Victor. Fast forward a year. Julie’s father is dead, Julie is married to Victor, and she’s already thoroughly miserable….

The marriage between Victor and Julie stumbles along; she’s bitterly unhappy and grows pale and ill, and he, complaining to his friends about his delicate wife, consoles himself with other women.

One of the interesting aspects of the story is Balzac’s frank approach to marital sex. At one point Julie, left by Victor with an elderly aunt, writes a letter to a friend warning her of the miseries of marriage, and the old Marquise reads the letter. In the letter Julie warns her friend, Louisa, that after “a few days of marriage, [and] you will be what I am already–ugly, wretched, and old.” A major complaint is sex with an oblique reference to “the last outburst of delicious merriment” right before Victor gets into the marital bed for the first time. After reading Julie’s letter to Louisa, Victor’s aunt, the worldly, elderly Marquise tells Julie:

“If a dish at table is not to our taste, there is no occasion to disgust others, with it, child.”

The Marquise grasps that when it comes to sex with Victor, Julie finds “it impossible to share his pleasures.” At one point, after winning back Victor’s attentions, Julie manages to convince him that sex is no longer part of their relationship. Victor and Julie grow apart; he has affairs and he tells his friends that they would act as he does is they “had a pretty wife so fragile that for the past two years you might not so much as kiss her hand for fear of damaging her.”  We hear Victor’s side of the matter in a speech with an interesting analogy as he confides to a friend:

Do not you encumber yourself with one of those fragile ornaments, only fit to put in a glass case, so brittle and so costly that you are always obliged to be careful of them. They tell me that you are afraid of snow or wet for that fine horse of yours; how often do you ride him? That is just my own case. It is true that my wife gives me no ground for jealousy, but my marriage is purely ornamental business; if you think that I am a married man, you are grossly mistaken. So there is some excuse for my unfaithfulness.

A Woman of Thirty is a study in character. We know that Victor is weak and not particularly intelligent. There’s no substance underneath that flashy uniform. At first it’s fairly easy to blame all of Julie’s woes on her husband-after all she was warned about Victor by her father. But then Balzac raises the fascinating issue of sexual incompatibility. There’s a hint that Victor’s just a tad too brutish for Julie. Julie and Victor’s incompatibility is underscored by her love for two other men; in the case of one man, this is not the sort of love that includes passion and sex. It’s agape love–self-sacrifice, devotion and worship. Julie’s passion for the second man brings dire consequences to her family. Some female characters in Balzac pour all their passion into religion, but that’s an option that fails for Julie. She tries to find consolation in religion but cannot.

Balzac’s novel isn’t a general statement against marriage (Julie’s friend Louisa does marry in spite of her friend’s advice and is very happy), but it is a cautionary tale about the misery of marriage between two people of varying sensibilities. Julie possibly could have been happy if she’d married a different sort of man. Interestingly Victor seems to grow a little better with age while Julie’s disappointments warp her relationship with her daughter and lead to tragedy.

The plot goes on for far too long and the woman of thirty becomes a bitterly, unhappy woman of fifty who struggles with lifelong disappointments and depression. The plot turns soapy at the end with an implausible coincidence involving pirates.

The idea behind the novel is excellent–Balzac creates a series of snapshots of a woman’s unhappy life, and due to the timing of those snapshots the reader sees the direct cause and effect connection. Balzac’s attack on unhappy marriage and sexual incompatibility must have caused tongues to wag in the salons of Paris. Julie complains that her husband “seeks me too often,” and Balzac poses the question that perhaps Julie’s “abhorrence of passion,” is a result of her “girlish first love” latching on to the first object of her adoration before she knew “the forbidden but frenzied bliss for which some women will renounce all the laws of prudence and the principles of conduct upon which society is based.” Of course, Julie does get to taste that “forbidden but frenzied bliss” only to pay for those moments of madness dearly later.

There are many marvelous passages here even though the plot falls off the deep end by the book’s conclusion, and here’s Julie speaking her mind to a Curé on the subject of marriage–specifically a loveless marriage in which she compares sex between husband and wife to sex between a prostitute and her customers:

You pour scorn on the miserable creatures who sell themselves for a few coins to any passer-by, though want and hunger absolve the brief union; while another union, horrible for quite other reasons, is tolerated, nay encouraged, by society, and a young and innocent girl is married to a man whom she has only met occasionally during the previous three months. She is sold for her whole lifetime. It is true that the price is high! If you allow her no compensation for her sorrows, you might at least respect her, but no, the most virtuous of women cannot escape calumny. This is our fate in its double aspect. Open prostitution and shame; secret prostitution and unhappiness. As for the poor, portionless girls, they may die or go mad, without a soul to pity them. Beauty and virtue are marketable in the bazaar where souls and bodies are bought and sold–in the den of selfishness which you call society.

It’s a wonderful speech, and through Julie’s voice we can hear Balzac loud and clear. But in this impassioned speech Julie seems to forget that her marriage to Victor was not arranged–in fact she insisted upon it against her father’s wishes. She seems to be absolving herself of any personal responsibility now that she faces a life sentences for a decision she made as an inexperienced young girl. In spite of the book’s flaws (it should have ended with Julie at thirty), it’s interesting for its revolutionary view of the misery of married life and its frank approach to married sex.

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Six Figures by Fred G. Leebron

In Fred G. Leebron’s novel, Six Figures, Warner Lutz is the newly-appointed director of  MORE, a third-rate charity in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a very small budget. There’s BIG money to be made working for high-profile charities, but Warner certainly isn’t getting rich at a salary of $35,000 a year while his wife, Megan makes $25,000 a year working at an art gallery. With a combined income of $50,000, the Lutzs are just over double the poverty level for a family of 4, so we can’t exactly feel sorry for Warner. That’s ok, he’s busy feeling sorry for himself, and even Megan, who’s continually put in the position of finding the so-called silver lining, admits that Warner is the “most negative person” she knows.

six figuresWarner is full of bitterness, anger and resentment about all the things he doesn’t have. They live in a tiny townhouse and drive a beat-up Honda that’s clocked over 100,000 miles. It doesn’t help that Warner mingles with the wealthy or drives by their mansions, and while he knows that life could be worse, he could fall through the “trapdoor” and join “the working poor, the criminal poor,” he can still barely contain his resentment at being treated second class.

Yet he still wanted more. Every morning when he drove Sophie in their shitcan hundred-thousand-plus-mile Honda with the guardrail crease down one side to the private but only $175-a-month preschool and he saw the other parents in the new Volvos and minivans and Suburbans, he wanted more. Every noon when he stood in line at the vegetarian take-out for his cup of soup and can of diet cola while in a nearby café the gray suits and sleek dresses milled between garden salads and poached salmon, he wanted more. And in the evenings when he drew up to the cramped, redbrick town-house apartments of Crape-Myrtle Hill, having passed the magic dust mansions of the growing rank-and-file rich with their screened-in porches and their two-story great rooms sand their eat-in kitchens and their master bedroom baths and built-in saunas, he wanted more.

Warner deeply regrets going into charity work, but it’s too difficult to change careers, and so he spends his days bitterly comparing his lot in life with those who ooze money; he “failed to swallow Megan’s relativity argument,” and finds it impossible to curb his anger and resentment.  Megan becomes the centre of much of Warner’s anger, and when Warner’s job performance comes under scrutiny, pressure mounts to boiling point. Then something terrible happens.

Six Figures is a novel seeped in psychological suspense in a domestic setting, and in this examination of a marriage, we see the simple day-to-day demands of a family. Megan has put her career on hold in order to follow her husband, and yet he secretly resents her and the children. Everything seems to be a choice for the Lutzs as they juggle careers, car repairs and daycare with strained financial realities. Warner is stretched to breaking point by the immense pressures of his job, and his constant envy of the ever-elusive affluent lifestyle. While a crime takes place, this is not primarily a crime novel. Instead this is the story of a marriage, the assignment of blame, and the limits of trust.

Warner is an unlikeable, alienating character with a nasty temper, and while that’s not a problem in itself, nearly everyone in this slightly depressing book is unpleasant, including Warner’s parents who arrive on the scene from Pennsylvania. There are a few scenes in which Warner rubs up against those wealthier than him and while his resentments and observations are directed towards showing the superficiality of status markers, we see that he wants the very things he supposedly despises.  There will always to be people who have more than us, but you can bet that there are also people who have less. Warner and Megan’s social position puts them outside of the window of the wealthy looking in, and that’s an interesting but uncomfortable place to be. While it’s easy to have sympathy for Megan, it’s not easy to have sympathy for Warner, yet they are, after all, in the same boat.

I loved the book’s title–after all that six figure income is a term that’s bandied about and seems to mean that the recipient has passed some magical status marker to a point of arrival. It’s a bit odd though when you think about it as 101,000 is a lot different from 999,000 but those two numbers both qualify as ‘six figures.’ It was interesting to see how the Lutzs decided to spend $150 on carpet cleaning on a regular basis when they are supposedly squeezing every penny to buy a house, but that’s society for you. I’m always amazed at how many people who claim to be ‘broke’ have regular lawn service, or cleaners, or who take their pets to be washed when they could do it their damn selves.

The biggest problem I had with the novel is characterisation. Initially this seemed to be a character-driven novel focusing on the dynamics of a marriage, but for this reader, the crime aspect worked against the character development. For the first part of the novel, Warner is a time bomb waiting to explode and then later, he remains in control until one big outburst which is intended as a defense. Somehow this didn’t quite gel. There’s a big build up and then a dispersal of all that anger and rage as it disappears … puff… into the ozone. Perhaps people would act this way in this horrible situation, but character seemed secondary to the plot.  A couple of the plot twists strained credulity, and readers should be prepared for the ambiguity of the ending.

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Filed under Fiction, Leebron Fred G.

Balzac on Marriage and Power

Balzac’s A Woman of Thirty is the story of an unhappy marriage. Julie, a young girl marries a flashy young military aristocrat and while her father knows he’s poor marriage-material, Julie can’t see past the glitter.  Here’s a superb quote on the subject of mediocrity and power:

How many men are there whose utter incapacity is a secret kept from most of their acquaintances. For such as these high rank, high office, illustrious birth, a certain veneer of politeness, and considerable reserve of manner, or the prestige of great fortunes, are but so many sentinels to turn back critics who would penetrate to the presence of the real man. Such men are like kings, in that their real figure, character, and life can never be known nor justly appreciated, because they are always seen from too near or too far. Factitious merit has a way of asking questions and saying little; and understands the art of putting others forward to save the necessity of posing before them; then with a happy knack of its own, it draws and attaches others by the thread of the ruling passion of self-interest, keeping men of far greater abilities to play like puppets, and despising those whom it has brought down to its own level. The petty fixed idea naturally prevails; it has the advantage of persistence over the plasticity of great thoughts.

But there’s more. Balzac asks what happens when the woman realizes that she’s married to a loser. Well she can deal with it and/or take a lover–that’s one option. But there’s also Catherine the Great’s Nuclear option:

Bethink yourself now of the part to be played by a clever woman quick to think and feel, mated with a husband of this kind, and can you not see a vision of lives full of sorrow and self-sacrifice? Nothing upon the earth can repay such hearts so full of love and tender tact. Put a strong-willed woman in this wretched situation, and she will force a way out of it for herself by a crime, Like Catherine II., whom men nevertheless style “The Great.” But these woman are not all seated upon thrones, they are for the most part doomed to domestic unhappiness none the less terrible because obscure.

The Scarlet Empress

scarlet empress

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The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt

“It’s always the memories you comb through the most avidly that fade the fastest, that are eclipsed  by–what to call it–? a sort of memory-fiction. Like a dream. Whereas the things we forget totally, the things that sneak up on us in the middle of the night, after thirty years–they’re so uncannily fresh.”

Sometimes reading choices are serendipitous, and that is definitely the case with David Leavitt’s excellent novel The Two Hotel Francforts as it turned out to be a perfect companion piece to a novel I read earlier this year: Transit. While Transit (which is highly recommended, by the way) depicts desperate Jewish refugees trying to exit Marseille, The Two Hotel Francforts depicts two affluent couples–one American, the other Anglo-American–in Lisbon in no particular hurry to embark on the SS Manhattan for New York.    

We met the Frelengs in Lisbon, at the Café Suiça. This was in June 1940, when we were all in Lisbon waiting for the ship that was coming to rescue us and take us to New York. By us, I mean, of course, us Americans, expatriates of long standing mostly, for whom the prospect of returning home was a bitter one.

The narrator is Pete Winters, a General Motors executive stationed in Paris, who is married to the very high-maintenance, temperamental and neurotic Julia. Being married to Julia is like devoting oneself to a cause, but since Pete acknowledges that “she was never satisfied, my Julia,” it’s a thankless, wearying task. When pursuing Julia, he “disregard[ded] every warning sign” which included Julia’s own mother who told Pete “I beg you to reconsider” when he indicate his desire to marry her daughter. Now, the marriage isn’t about passion, love or even friendship–it’s about one person absorbing the other’s demands, neediness and neuroticism:

All my life, I saw, I had been looking, in the absence of any pressing desire of goal, for a purposefulness outside myself on which I might, as it were, ride piggyback. It could have been a religion, it could have been a political party, it could have been a collection of musical instruments made from shoeshine boxes. Instead it was Julia.

As the background of this couple is teased out, we learn that Julia and Pete have lived in Paris for 15 years now in a mausoleum of a showcase apartment. They moved to Paris at her insistence, and “she had sworn” that she would never return to America. Julia intended to be a writer, but “she could only write first chapters. The middle, the vast middle, defeated her.” Instead, she’s become an empty woman who shops and decorates endlessly and is terrified that her many relatives will swoop into her home. She claims to see various relatives in various places and these sightings cause her to panic & run into hiding. Pete, who is used to dealing with Julia’s hysteria, isn’t convinced that these sightings are legitimate.  It’s with a sense of defeat and a low-grade panic that Julia counts the days until the SS Manhattan arrives. Julia schemes to stay in Portugal, and there’s the hint, from this story that’s narrated about the long-ago past, that something goes terribly wrong:

And how funny to think that when all is said and done, she was right and I was wrong! For we would have been perfectly safe in Portugal. Well it is too late for her to lord that over me now.

With money and the appropriate papers, Lisbon is a decent place to wait for a ship sailing for America. After all, “everything that was scarce in France and Spain was plentiful here: meat, cigarettes, gin. The only trouble was overcrowding.” As the refugees pour in, “hotel rooms were nearly impossible to come by.” As a consequence, there’s a desperate end-of-the-world air to Lisbon, with some people staying up all night long at the casino. The Winters are the lucky ones. They have somewhere to go and the papers to ensure they get there.  They are also lucky enough to secure an excellent room at the Hotel Francfort, but with Julia insisting that she doesn’t want to leave, there’s a great deal of tension between Pete and Julia. Then the Winters meet Iris and Edward Freleng and their elderly dog, Daisy. Meeting the Frelengs is a welcome distraction for Pete Winters, but Julia dislikes them. Iris begins to absorb some of Julia’s demanding fitfulness, and this gives Pete a little respite from Julia’s 24-7 care. The meeting seems fortuitous, and the Frelengs offer Pete, at least, interesting intelligent company for the week or so before their ship arrives. But just what is the Frelengs’ game? ….

the two hotel francfortsStrong on characterization, the novel sets the scene by showing how Pete feeling “almost giddy with relief and gratitude,” leaps at the apparent lifeline thrown to him by the Frelengs. Pete is mentally exhausted by herding the unwilling Julia to Lisbon, and the Frelengs, who are peers in the same socioeconomic status, appear to absorb some of Julia’s neediness. Julia’s impossible personality does not deter the Frelengs who seem determined to ‘buddy up,’ and the very first time the Winters meet the Frelengs, Iris drags an unwilling Julia off to see the vet blatantly ignoring Julia’s protests and disgust with Daisy.

It seems natural, at first, that the Frelengs, who write detective novels under the name Xavier Legrand, should want to spend the next 7-10 days in the company of the Winters, but then again, Julia doesn’t exactly attract friends. Her petulant self-focus is expressed almost the moment she meets the Frelengs and the two couples exchange thoughts about the war that has ripped their life plans apart:

“Us?” I said. “Oh we’ve been lucky.”

“And just how is that, pray tell?” Julia said.

“Well, we’ve made it this far without getting killed, haven’t we? A ship’s coming to rescue us. And when you think what some of these poor devils wouldn’t give to have a ticket on that ship–“

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see why their having to leave their homes is any worse than our having to leave our homes,” Julia said.

“Oh, but it is,” Iris said. “Because we’ve got somewhere to flee to, haven’t we? Whereas all they have to look forward to is exile–that is, if they find a country willing to accept them.”

“But it’s exile for us, too,” Julia said. “France was our home, too.”

It’s impossible not to draw parallels between The Two Hotel Francforts and Ford Madox Ford’s excellent novel The Good Soldier, for while the setting is different, both novels examine two marriages and the problematic relationships sparked between the two couples years after the events take place. Leavitt’s intriguing title, The Two Hotel Francforts hints at the duplicity at play in the novel, and that duplicity exists on several levels. No one is quite what they seem and everyone reveals what they want people to see–no more than that.

For Edward, his broad shoulders notwithstanding, was mercurial. You could reach for him, and sometimes you would grab hold of him. But sometimes all you would grab hold of was a reflection of a reflection in a revolving door.

The ‘rules’ and dynamics of any marriage are impenetrable to outsiders, and both the Winters and the Freleng’s marriages are pathological, but in very different ways. While we know almost immediately how toxic the Winters’ marriage is, just what keeps the Freleng’s marriage together isn’t apparent at first–although the dog Daisy is arguably part of the visible gel that bonds Iris and Edward. Their lives appear to coalesce around Daisy, and it’s because of her they declined to take a ship to England. As these two couples wait for the ship that will take them to New York, the foundation of European civilization is in a state of upheaval; people are running for their lives, and here, just as the Winters and the Frelengs appear to have reached safety, their lives are ripped apart by duplicity and will never be the same. The four main characters, whose actions are clouded with desire, desperation and selfishness, are thrown together by circumstance as the world spins from unbridled fascism. They all lie to each other and to themselves, and as Iris tells Pete:

Poor thing, you’re such an innocent in some ways. Such a novice. You think there’s a protocol to all this … But there are no rules here. We’re beyond rules.

While the narrator of Ford Madox Ford’s novel, The Good Soldier, is classically unreliable, the narrator of The Two Hotel Francforts appears to be reliable. But after I put the book down, I chewed that decision over, and concluded that Pete Winters, in the depths of the lies he contrives, could possibly be unreliable in his version of events. Was his marriage to Julia quite how he portrayed it with him as the unhappy factotum for his wife’s neurotic demands? After all, we only have his version of things decades later. If you can’t already tell, I loved this novel for the way in which Leavitt depicted the complexities of these two toxic, brittle marriages–both kept together by a set of unspoken rules.

Review copy

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Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook

My introduction to the crime novels of Thomas H. Cook came late in his career with The Crime of Julian Wells. For obsessive readers, it’s always exciting to ‘discover’ a writer who already has an impressive backlist, but before I could get to that backlist, here’s Thomas Cook back again a  year later with another unusual crime novel. We’ve all seen films that fall into that ‘courtroom drama’ category,  and the novel Sandrine’s Case takes place mainly in the courtroom–either through the scandalous murder trial that takes place, or in the mind of the man accused of murdering his wife as various witnesses give their testimony. Sandrine’s Case hits some buttons for me–this is a very cerebral crime novel, an unusual combination, so there’s no violence and a crime may or may not have been committed. Of course, there are crimes that break the law and for which people are caught and imprisoned, but there are other ‘crimes’ too–moral crimes, or moral transgressions if you will, frequently committed against those we supposedly love, and this are the two territories Cook explores in a parallel fashion during the murder trial.

sandrines caseThe book opens on the first day of the murder trial of English and American Literature Professor Samuel Madison who is accused of murdering his wife, a “much -loved” professor of history, Sandrine Madison, and then staging her death to look like a suicide.  While the court case determines whether or not Professor Samuel Madison murdered his wife, as the narrator, Samuel’s flashback memories provide us with a painful glimpse into their marriage. The court case, of course, provides a strict structure for the narrative, but in comparison, Samuel’s thoughts are in freefall. This juxtaposition allows us to see the barebones of the case and then moves us into the mind of the man accused of murder as he recalls the circumstances surrounding the testimonies given by various witnesses.

As the story unfolds, hints about Samuel’s guilt or innocence begin to appear. Did he or didn’t he murder his wife?  With each subsequent witness, Samuel’s memories float to the surface effectively bringing Sandrine back to life, so that a portrait of the dead woman emerges. Through the course of the trial, Samuel begins to realize that he didn’t know his wife nearly as well as he thought he did. Sandrine was a complex woman deeply satisfied with her professional life while her husband Samuel is embittered by the fact that he never wrote the ‘great novel’ he intended to write, and neither did he have the stellar career he thought he deserved. Both Samuel and Sandrine taught at a small college in Georgia, and while Sandrine loved her job and, according to Sam showed “unaccountable devotion” to her students, to Sam, the students are all dull and “uninspiring,” not worth the slightest effort on his part. Sam’s arrogance extends to his colleagues:

I’d endlessly scoffed at my fellow professors. I always thought them a mediocre gaggle of academics waylaid in an inconsequential terminus at the end of the academic line.

Of course, if all your colleagues are “mediocre” twerps, what does that make you? One of the herd or vastly superior? Testimony from witnesses and Sam’s unfolding memories show how two people can view the same town, their friends and their neighbours through two entirely different lens. Sandrine loved her job, her students and her community, but for Sam, none of it was ever good enough. Sam isn’t a very nice man, and his arrogance does him no favours. As a narrator, he’s initially hard to peg and impossible to like. He spends part of the trial deriding the intelligence of the jury and the witnesses and also believes that he’ll be found guilty simply because he’s an intellectual and privileged. Sam finds it “odd” that 12 people, the very sort of people he’s made fun of now sit on the jury about to decide his fate.

In addition to the dreadful things I’d done to their children, the people of Coburn no doubt resented the fact that I’d done it while living a very privileged life, at least some of it paid for by the exorbitant tuition required to send their children to Coburn College. But this hostility had remained more or less mute before Sandrine’s death. After it, the media had gone on a feeding frenzy, the result of which was that by the first day of my trial I’d become a person much despised in this little town. To them, I was a man who had a great job, if you could even call it work, what with summers off and sabbaticals at full pay and holidays for every religion known to man. I was a tenured professor, which to the people of Coburn was  a free ticket to a carefree and semi luxurious retirement. I couldn’t even be fired–so the locals assumed–no matter what I said in class, or even if I failed to show up in class at all. But this Samuel Joseph Madison character had wanted something more, they said to themselves and to each other. A cushy life had simply not been enough for the esteemed professor, expert on Melville, Hawthorne, and God knows how many other lesser-known literary figures. Here was a man who’d lived high on the hog despite the fact that he conceived nothing, built nothing, invented nothing, maintained nothing, sold nothing. Here was a man who lied high on the hog by  … talking.

When Sam whines about how the rest of the world treats him, going on about how everyone thinking he’s elite and privileged and then bolsters that self-pity with himself vs the plebs and their worthless offspring, the very whining illustrates how Sam sees himself as privileged and ‘different.’ That snobbery works against him during the year-long investigation that led to the trial.

As the story weaves back and forth in time, the author infuses his story with regret and tenderness, and while an image evolves of Sandrine, a woman who loved life and lived it to the fullest, Samuel is clearly too bitterly detached to feel much of anything, but as the trial continues, revelations cause him to revise many of his opinions. The plot also explores the issue of protracted illness along with the accompanying fact that disease takes us on a lonely road. Empathy and love will lighten that solitary journey, but it’s a path that must inevitably be endured alone.

I really enjoyed the book’s structure, and even though I thought I knew where the story was taking me, I did not. Cook took some risks here in creating such an insufferable narrator–a self-focused man incapable of thinking about but himself, but since I always enjoy reading about nasty people, I thoroughly enjoyed Sam’s thoughts. The novel includes a postscript which took the story into sentimentality and rather ground home the point. IMO, the book would have been better without it. Apart from that flaw, Sandrine’s Case is a thoughtful novel which explores the idea of punishable crime which society holds us accountable for vs. the elusive culpability of the moral transgressions we have to live with.

Review copy

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A Crack in the Wall by Claudia Piñeiro

When I read Claudia Piñeiro’s novel Thursday Night Widows, I knew I’d found an author that I wanted to follow. Then came All Yours with its deliciously bad unreliable narrator.  This brings me A Crack in the Wall, the latest novel from Claudia Piñeiro–a story of greed, murder, and identity. All three novels are highly recommended, and while the plots are dissimilar, there’s a common thread– class, the pathology of marriage and its link with crime–all set against the shifting economic backdrop of Buenos Aires society.

a crack in the wallIt’s 2007, Pablo Simó is an unhappily married middle-aged architect living in Buenos Aires. He’s in a strange position at work–although he’s worked there for over 20 years, he’s never been made an associate, and he’s the odd man out in the unhealthy triangle at the office. There’s a long-term affair between Pablo’s married boss Borla and the third person in the office, sexy architect Marta, and that leaves Pablo, who’s plagued with his own sexual fantasies of Marta, in a  somewhat awkward position. Even though the company name is Borla and Associates, the associate, in reality is singular. Pablo has the somewhat undignified position of being the employee who overhears intimacies between Borla and Marta, and he even occasionally acts as a liaison between the two long-term lovers. If Marta wants to call Borla at night, Marta will call Pablo with a message instead of talking to Borla directly, and then Pablo picks up the phone and runs the gauntlet of Borla’s wife in order to give Borla whatever message Marta has sent.

It’s a dead-end job in more ways than one. Not only is Pablo the lowest man on the totem pole, but he’s also destined to build generically designed, cheaply made, ugly highrise buildings. With land in short supply, Buenos Aires is in state of flux: beautiful old buildings are being destroyed and systematically replaced, and as Pablo acknowledges: “You can’t lay a single brick in Buenos Aires without first finding a building and condemning it to annihilation.” Pablo can only just remember the man he used to be–a man who had goals to design and build something unique, but all this is lost. Now he’s driven, like the rest of the herd, to tear down old beautiful buildings and pack in cheap, rapidly built, high-rise flats into every available square foot of Buenos Aires, always keeping the shifting “profit margin” in mind.

For years Pablo Simó has looked at Buenos Aires purely as a source of what Borla calls business opportunities: reasonably priced plots of land on which to build: public auctions; municipal land that comes up for sale and which is feasible to buy thanks to some friend or contact; complicated estates, where the heirs want a quick sale and end up settling for a pittance; divorces that require selling off property ridiculously cheaply so as to separate what can no longer be joined. That’s what he looks at these days, because that’s what he’s been told to look for. He tries to remember a time when he saw things differently, harking back to student days when he could stand in front of a newly discovered building and feel a current pass through his body, an almost sexual sensation, a tension that nowadays he never feels so fervidly, not even in bed.

But Pablo is a dreamer, so by day he scribbles plans for the building he’d like to build, and he also holds silent conversations in his head with his long-lost, equally idealistic friend and fellow architect, Tano, a man who loved the exotic, excessive splendors of Art Nouveau. Even though Pablo hasn’t seen Tano in years, the memory of his friend acts as Pablo’s conscience–the two men hold imaginary conversations with arguments about Pablo’s actions. The presence of this imaginary Tano also reminds Pablo just how far he’s veered from the path of his youth.

And speaking of Pablo’s conscience … well, he’s hiding a horrible secret. Partly due to his passivity and partly due to his susceptibility to hysterics, Pablo committed a crime, and while the crime seemed to be buried and forgotten, that recent past walks through the door of Pablo’s office in the form of a very attractive young woman who begins asking some awkward questions….

A Crack in the Wall is both literal and figurative. Pablo was involved in building yet another high rise when he’s approached by a rather strange man named Jara who contends that the new building is undermining the integrity of his apartment. Jara has a series of photos to show the progression of a sizeable crack in his wall that has opened and continues to grow as the building next door progresses. But the “crack” also exists in Pablo, and it’s a crack that separates the man he is and the man he’d like to be. As the story unfolds with Pablo going back over past events, the crack in Pablo’s psyche widens, making it much more difficult for Pablo to live with himself. While this is a very satisfying psychological crime novel, to say this is  just a crime novel negates the rest of the plot and its character driven elements which explore the issues of identity and moral compromise while also giving us fascinating glimpses of Argentinean culture and architecture. Claudia Piñeiro shows us that there’s a very definite connection between ideals and an inner moral compass. Lose one and the other is in jeopardy.

Tomorrow he’ll walk or take a bus–there must be a bus that follows a direct route across the city from his house to his work instead of describing the peculiar horseshoe around which he travels every day beneath the earth–he will make a journey overland, allowing him to look up and take stock of all that each street has to offer. He will roam from one side of town to the other, like a treasure seeker but with no map or coordinates, with no references or clues, leaving chance to do its work, letting an invisible hand carry him through the city, guiding his determination to rediscover something that, until recently, he didn’t even realize he had lost.

Translated by Miranda France.

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Five Days by Douglas Kennedy

“But the truth is, no matter how successful or happy you may consider yourself to be there is always a part of your life that is problematic, or deficient, or a letdown in some way.”

The blurb on the back cover of Five Days includes this:

Douglas Kennedy’s powerful new novel poignantly examines the death of hope, the limitless possibilities of love, and how the entire trajectory of a life can change through one brief encounter.

It’s interesting that the words ‘brief encounter’ appear as this is the film I thought of when I read Douglas Kennedy’s latest book, but while I’d class the 1945 film Brief Encounter as a romance, Five Days isn’t so easily pegged. Yes, there is romance in these pages, but primarily this is a story of how one very unhappy 41-year-old woman faces her unhappiness and decides to do something to change her life. five daysLaura is a married Radiology Technician who works at a hospital in Damariscotta, Maine, and here between the hours of 9-5, she performs scans on patients sent to her as part of the diagnostic  sequence. It’s my personal belief that you can’t work in this sort of job without it impacting your thoughts about life & death, and this is certainly true of Laura who sees people who are dying of cancer on a daily basis. Not that Laura is the one that breaks the news, of course, but she is, nonetheless part of the sequence of events. She’s always been able to handle her job, but lately the job has been getting to her, and she’s internalizing the results: euphoric when nothing is found, and tearful when the scans yield positive results. Peel back a few layers of Laura’s life, and it’s easy to see that her marriage is unhappy and unsatisfying. Add two troubled teenagers to the mix. Trouble then is on the horizon when Laura heads off solo to a conference in Boston where she meets Richard Copeland, a 50-something insurance salesman who is just as unhappy as she is…..

Five Days illustrates perfectly that affairs do not occur in the real world. They exist in a bubble–a very special, fabricated place that is not hampered by everyday concerns, and the novel does an excellent job of showing how very much easier it is for Laura to communicate with a brand-new person who shares a great deal of her interests instead of trying to discuss anything with Dan, her long-term unemployed, depressed husband of over 23 years.

So far so good.

As a protagonist, Laura is an irritating, insufferable human being–nothing wrong with reading about insufferable people, of course, as they can be a lot of fun (thinking Kingsley Amis here), but when they’re supposed to garner our sympathy and our subsequent interest in the character’s journey of self-discovery, it helps if that character is sympathetic, and if this transaction doesn’t occur, then something different happens.  The alarm bells initially went off for me with Laura’s character early in the novel when she described her competency at diagnosing cancers, and the alarms were loud and clear when she reveals the “shock” and “hurt” she feels after discovering that her now-deceased mother had an ectopic pregnancy years earlier. And this sums up in a nutshell Laura’s central issue as a character for this reader.; other people’s death sentences are her tragedy; her mother’s inability to have more children is somehow a personal betrayal. Laura is self-focused and egotistical even while she’s presented as suffering from a general lack of affection from an obtuse, depressive, dull and uninspiring spouse. Listening to Laura became a bit like listening to a work acquaintance complaining about her home life even as you, the audience, silently feel a bit sorry for the poor sod at home.

Laura is a RT but has long-buried dreams of being a doctor with long slow hints of why that didn’t happen. The first person narrative goes back and forth in time, and Laura’s story of just what went wrong with those dreams is gradually revealed. She ‘settled’ for Dan, and it seems that there’s no intellectual spark between them. No matter. When she meets Richard, the sparks fly in an egoistical word-play exchange. I’m not sure that people really talk like this, and if I’m wrong and then they do, they are obnoxious. Here’s Laura and Richard discovering their mutual love of synonyms

“He initially had a business partner–Jack Jones. A fellow Marine. Unlike my father, Jack actually liked people. Don’t know what he was doing in business with my father, as Jack was a genuinely happy-go-lucky guy and Dad was kind of dyspeptic about life.”

“I like that word: dyspeptic.”

” ‘Bilious’ would also be a good descriptive word as well. ‘Liverish’ might also fit the bill.”

“How about ‘disputative’?”

“A little too legal, I think. Dad was a misanthrope, but never litigious.”

I looked at him with a new interest. “You like words,” I said.

“You’re looking at the Kennebac County Spelling Bee champion of 1974, which is kind of Middle Ages now, right? But once you get hooked on words you don’t really ever lose the habit.”

This sort of thing goes on for a while–a sort of word-one-upmanship, and the mental/sexual sparks flying through the air which each new posturing.

“Okay, I give you that. How about ‘abrogatory’?”

“Now you’re getting too fancy. ‘Approbative.’ “

“That’s not fancy? Sounds downright florid to me.”

“Florid isn’t ‘aureate.’  “

“Or ‘Churrigueresque’? he asked.

Five Days certainly has its merits; it is a page turner and at its best when conveying the unreality of an affair when compared to the ever-present tensions of home and responsibility. Life can throw a lot of unexpected disasters at anyone, but two middle-aged people discussing their disappointments, loneliness, unfulfilled dreams of literary fame, and past glory of long-gone college days has never been exactly an up experience. Here it’s an angst-filled odyssey into some depressing territory. I’ve been meaning to read a Douglas Kennedy novel for some time as I have seen a few films based on his books: The Woman on the Fifth (disliked it), Welcome to Woop Woop (one of my favourite cult films), The Big Picture (excellent). Perhaps Five Days was the wrong place to start, and I may very well be the wrong reader for the book as my sob-o-meter isn’t exactly a sensitive instrument. So, if any Kennedy readers out there would like to recommend one of his titles, I’ll give it a go.

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