Tag Archives: miserable marriages

First Love: Gwendoline Riley

Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms takes a cold analytical approach to the narrator’s toxic relationships with her parents. Children can’t escape their parents’ mind games until they learn the rules of engagement, and then they should refuse to play. Through shared features, First Love could be considered a tangential novel to My Phantoms. Both novels are narrated by young women, and the mothers in both novels share characteristics and geographic locations. The mothers in these two novels could be the same person, seen through a less critical eye in First Love, and it’s a toss up whether the father in My Phantoms is more repugnant than the father in First Love. The major difference between the novels is the emotional territory. The narrator in My Phantoms focuses primarily on her mother. In First Love, the narrator has two major relationships–both toxic, but the narrator’s relationship with her mother seems like party-time compared to her toxic intimate relationships.

The novel begins with the narrator, Neve, a writer/teacher who has moved to London, to live with Edwyn. When the novel opens, they have been living together for 18 months. There’s the sense that perhaps things were good earlier in the relationship (“I’d watch for Edwyn in the evenings.”) But the relationship has declined and consists of a barrage of emotional abuse. Edwyn is now a sick man; he’s middle-aged, is post-heart surgery, and is in constant pain. Neve remains in the home living under a barrage of insults. Neve and Edwyn even marry at one point on the advice of his lawyer. The scenes between Edwyn and Neve are dreadful–not just the insults, but the slow torture of one person slicing into another’s every word. There are times when Neve begins to chat, as one does to one’s partner, but Edwyn isn’t having it:

I was casting around for something to say, and then as soon as I’d said it–“Lonely”–I knew what was coming. Finding out what you already know. Repeatedly. That’s not sane, is it? And while he might have said that this was how he was, for me it continued to be frightening, panic-making, to hear the low, pleading sounds I’d started making whenever he was sharp with me. This wasn’t how I spoke. (Except it was.) This wasn’t me, this crawling cautious creature. (Except it was.) I defaulted to it very easily. And he let me. Why? I wonder how much he even noticed, hopped up as he was. No, I didn’t believe he did notice. That was the lesson, I think. That none of it was personal.

Over time and some very painful, spiteful scenes, Neve learns how to cope. Numbed to the point of compliance, she knows when dealing with Edwyn, not to try and clarify. Instead she learns how to placate:

So it was both strange, and dreadful–I knew it–to feel that I was managing him, in a way. Beyond bringing him out of himself, or my genuine interest; that I was maintaining this keen and appreciative front as a way to keep him calm, or to distract him. Like –I don’t know–throwing some sausages at a guard dog.

Post Edwyn, Neve’s life is better for his absence, but still her life seems flat, stark and joyless. In the past is Neve’s ‘great’ love, a man named Michael. The affair did not end well, and for some reason, Neve reconnects with Michael when he drifts back into her life. Michael is a strange, self-focused man, and his relationship with Neve has fuzzy edges. Neve’s friendships seem more successful. Loved her friend Bridie whose texts leave Neve with a feeling of missing out, but when they finally meet, it seems that Bridie is prone to exaggeration and her life is a mess.

Neve’s mother is very like the mother in My Phantoms–a woman who throws herself into a frantic round of social activities while not enjoying it in the least. Her mother’s relationships with men are problematic–she invites herself to visit a younger man in America, and so the trip is destined to disappoint in a life full of disappointment and exclusion. The behaviour of Neve’s father, a man who ate himself to death, probably goes a long way to explaining why Neve stays with Edwyn. She has no idea what is normal, and there are no doubt financial reasons behind Neve’s continuing to live under Edwyn’s abuse. Sharp, dark and bitter, First Love makes my best-of-year list.

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Lucy by the Sea: Elizabeth Strout

It was inevitable that the COVID lockdown entered the realm of fiction: after all, it is an historic event and to be honest, I was rather interested to see how authors incorporated the many aspects of life during COVID into novels. That brings me to Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea, a seemingly child-like title which belies the reality… or does it?

Lucy is a reappearing character in several Strout novels: My Name is Lucy Barton (have to backtrack to read this one), Anything is Possible, and Oh, William. In Oh, William, Elizabeth Strout gave us a first hand look at the after-marriage of Lucy Barton and her X-William. In that novel, writer Lucy Barton, freshly widowed from her second husband, becomes embroiled in the life of her self-focused X when his much-younger wife, unsurprisingly, moves onto fresher pastures. William is a Dickhead. Selfish, self-focused, not, I suppose a ‘bad’ man, but in his prime a serial adulterer who now aged 70 seems as little aware of the damage he caused as when he had numerous affairs.

Lucy by the Sea takes us to COVID lockdown. Lucy, like many people, hears about the virus tangentially in the news but William, who after all is/was a scientist, takes the news very seriously indeed and drives Lucy to a rental house in Maine for the duration. This is not an action novel by any means–instead this is Lucy’s tale as she sits out the virus–until vaccination time that is. So it’s a novel about waiting, watching the news and missing loved ones. In other words, this is a relatable novel. Bob Burgess makes an appearance as a supporting character. He helps arrange the Maine rental, and when the situation allows, he and his wife Margaret visit Lucy and William, maintaining social distance of course. For Lucy, this period takes on a dream like-quality. Watching the news, seeing the deaths, from a safe distance, seems almost surreal. Lucy and William’s two daughters Chrissy and Becka, each have their own crises during lockdown and Lucy cannot run to their sides to help. She can only wait for news at a distance. Bob Burgess (The Burgess Boys) is a kindred spirit to Lucy and helps with William and Lucy’s Maine transition.

In Oh, William, a highly enjoyable read, a great deal of the delight came from Lucy’s observations of William, a selfish sod whose world consists of two daughters, ex-wife Lucy and his much younger wife and third daughter who have just left him. William’s two adult daughters and Lucy seem to spend a great deal of time worrying about William–a man whose self-focus guarantees he puts himself first. In Lucy by the Sea, William appears to be thinking of someone else for a change.

When I read the synopsis of the novel, I thought Poor Lucy… imagine being in lockdown with that prick for a year.. but Elizabeth Strout chooses not to play the novel that way. I had imagined them driving each other crazy, and while that does happen to a mild degree, lockdown pushes William into protective mode, and brings panic attacks to Lucy. What happened to William’s dickheadedness? Or does COVID bring out the best in William–at last? Is his desire to ‘save’ Lucy sincere or is her just using COVID to control her? Strout does a wonderful job of recreating a COVID lockdown experience (many varieties exist): the ennui, the feeling of suspended animation, the heartbreak of being unable to have physical contact with family, and the bitter crunch of being housebound 24/7 with someone whose habits drive you around the bend. At some point, I became disappointed with the plot, but I came to that conclusion too soon. Ultimately, Elizabeth Strout did not disappoint me. There’s a wonderful scene with William and Lucy in which William confesses that he wished he had lived his life better:

“Oh Lucy, come on. I sit here and think over my life , and I think, Who have I been? I have been an idiot.”

“In what way?”

I asked him. And interestingly he answered first about his profession. “I have taught student after student after student, but did I make a real contribution to science? No.”

I opened my mouth, but he held up his hand to stop me.

“And on a personal level, look how I have lived my life.” I thought he must have been talking about his affairs. But he was not.

Lucy had a terrible childhood, and now in her 60s, she is, to this reader, surprisingly childlike. That kind of abuse creates permanent damage, yet somehow Lucy is cocooned by her belief in the beauty of the world. In her head she has created an imaginary mother–a loving kind mother who supports her and comforts her. It’s a great coping mechanism. Lucy is a believable character because she is so consistent. She never acts outside of the character created by Strout. To this reader, Lucy is remarkable because she is so good in spite of all her horrible experiences. But, at the same time, even though Lucy is good and believable, she is a little vanilla. Lucy is an observer of the world more than anything, and she is a passive character. In Oh, William, William’s dickheadedness added spike and spice to the plot, and there were times when even Lucy got sick of him. Olive Kitteridge appears in the sidelines and there were times I longed for Olive’s acidic tongue. She would make short work of William.

There’s a sequel here. I know it. And the big boom is coming.

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The Wycherly Woman: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer #9)

“I glanced up at her small tense face. She looked like a bunny after a hard Easter.”

In The Wycherly Woman, PI Lew Archer becomes embroiled in the ashes of an acrimonious divorce in pursuit of a missing daughter. Archer is summoned to the home of the obnoxious bombastic Homer Wycherly, a wealthy man who has just returned from a cruise only to find that his only child, Phoebe, has been missing since the day he sailed. Homer Wycherly hires Archer to find Phoebe with the odd admonition that Archer not, under any circumstances, contact his ex-wife Catherine, a woman with, according to Homer, a “vile tongue.”

Just a little digging and Archer discovers that Phoebe was last seen in the company of her mother. Phoebe came aboard her father’s cruise ship to say “Bon Voyage,” but the moment was ruined by Catherine Wycherly who came aboard the ship before it sailed and created a scene with Homer. She demanded money. Two months have passed and during that time, Phoebe has not been seen at Boulder Beach College, at her rooming house, or by her momma’s boy boyfriend, Bobby. Bobby’s acidic mother is, or was, also Phoebe’s landlady. Archer is sure that Bobby knows more than he’s saying, and it’s clear that there’s no love lost between Bobby’s mother and Phoebe.

Although Archer is told by Wycherly to steer of Catherine, after he learns that Phoebe left the ship with her mother, he has little choice but to talk to Catherine. One missing person case quickly becomes a case of two missing persons. Catherine, a full-bodied, loud-mouthed blonde long past her sell-by-date, has also disappeared. Her residence, bought with money from the divorce, is up for sale, and when Archer starts asking questions regarding the real estate agent involved, the body count rises.

Archer encounters a lot of lonely, lost women on his way to solving the mystery:

You’re a hard man, aren’t you? But I like you, I really do. Are you married?

No.

I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know where to go.

She leaned towards me with a lost expression, hoping to be found.

For most of the book, I thought The Wycherly Woman could end up being at the top of my Archer list. I liked the book’s structure, and the elusive glimpses Macdonald gives the reader of Phoebe, a troubled girl who never recovered from her parent’s nasty divorce. I didn’t come close to unraveling the mystery, and the toxic stench from Homer and his relatives kept me guessing. On the down side, the plot twist was hard to swallow. Can’t say more than that without giving too much away.

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High Priest of California: Charles Willeford (1953)

“By nine am the next morning, the sun decide to burn its way through the clouds and let San Francisco take a look at it.”

Used Car salesmen are apparently the High Priest[s] of California, or at least that’s the idea in Charles Willeford’s dark noir novel. The High Priest in this case is San-Francisco based Russell Haxby, a sleazy predator who looks for easy sex and easy marks. And in this world, there’s no shortage of either. Haxby is a strange character. He appears to be-laid back and easy going, but erase that image and think instead of a predator who takes his sweet time tenderizing his prey, and that’s closer to Haxby’s real nature.

The novel opens with a bored Haxby out on the prowl at a dance hall “where men come to pick up something and women come to be picked up.” At first, there seem to be no likely prospects, but he spies an attractive shapely woman in a red suit and asks her to dance. One thing leads to another, and Haxby takes the woman, Alyce, for dinner and drinks. He “pumps” her about her living situation, and after discovering that she lives with an older, female cousin, Ruthie, Haxby thinks this will be a “cinch.” Once inside her apartment, Haxby is repelled. The place smells like a “zoo,” or more precisely of cat, several tomcats, which Alyce subsequently introduces to Haxby. Haxby decides that Alyce is “too weird” for him, but partly because he’s bored and partly because he doesn’t have any other better prospects, Haxby relentlessly, gradually, dissolves Alyce’s resistance to any form of intimate, physical contact. She’s a “new type,” for Haxby. In time, Haxby learns Alyce’s big secret which explains her reluctance to have any sort of relationship, and her apparent abhorrence of sex. But her indifference to sex and fundamental naivete merely eggs Haxby on.

Given that this is written by Charles Willeford, I expected murder around the corner. Haxby is a violent man who vents his pent-up frustrations, sexual and otherwise, on lowly males who won’t put up a defense. At the same time, he listens to classical music to soothe the beast within, and reads James Joyce. Willeford skillfully describes a sleazy world which is ruled by the meanest, unscrupulous people who prey on the weak. Haxby is a predator, circling Alyce until her scruples simply wear down. At one point, he considers unzipping her housecoat but decides it would be “too easy.” Part of the fun for Haxby is seducing Alyce with murmurs of love everlasting, and watching her swallow his spiel.

We see Haxby on the car lot, flipping prices on various heaps, and waiting for returning servicemen with deep pockets to buy without too many questions. Alyce’s cousin, Ruthie, an older blowsy woman, is seeing a married man who is waiting for his invalid wife to die. He’s not much of a prize, but Ruthie has put the time in to the relationship and expects the pay off soon. There’s no room for tenderness. Innocence… well that’s a sign of weakness.

Women don’t eat much, foolish, foolish. I believe a person should take advantage of anything that gives them pleasure. When you figure that this rock we’re living on is spinning around once a day, every day, 365 spins a year, and with each day you get a day older. What the hell does an extra inch or two around the waistline mean? An extra inch or two, period.

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The Innocent Party: Celia Dale (1973)

“The magazines just showed how everyone wished it could be.”

Celia Dale’s brilliant novel, The Innocent Party, explores the life of Linda Dalton, the only child of travelling salesman, Den, and his wife, Vera. With Vera “against outsiders,” and disliking her neighbours, Linda doesn’t have close friends. At school she “ran on the edge of the herd.” The Daltons live in a messy high rise London flat, and Linda waits for the days when her father returns home from his trips. Vera, however, clearly dreads the return of her husband. When Den is gone, which is about half the time, Vera’s mother, the widowed, pragmatic Nanna visits a lot, but when Den comes home, everything changes. It’s as though the flat shrinks:

There had to be more food, more solid, and so more crockery and pans, more time cooking it. His voice was louder, he sang as he shaved and squirted deodorant into his hairy armpits, slapped after-shave on his chin and examined himself for jowls and blackheads. He bought the evening papers to see the results and left them stuffed into the corners of the settee, He smacked Mum’s behind, tweaked her tits, took her out to the pictures, the pub, the Club on Saturday evenings, bought her black underwear, lay in Sundays, thrashed and snored and groaned through the wall into Linda’s sleep, drank three cups of tea in the morning and left a smell in the toilet.

Den always makes a fuss of Linda his “Buttercup,” and she’s in “rapture” when he arrives home. While she worships her father, Linda has a problematic relationship with her mother. Without understanding the deeper ramifications and causes of the chasm between her parents, Linda learns to work the marital discord to her advantage. Yet at the same time, Linda is an unwitting pawn in sexual politics.

Linda watched Mum growing more irritable, smoking more, her face peaked. Dad, who started the week his usual cheerful self, soon grew sour too, coming home from work and giving Mum a hug but being pushed off, answered crossly; so he would turn to Linda, cuddle her to him, let her sit on his lap although they knew Mum didn’t like it, say “Here’s someone who’s glad to see me anyway,” call her his girl, his Lindylou, Cindy-lindy, tickle her and tease her, holding her wrists while she tried to tickle him back as she wriggled and giggled on his hard lap, helpless and hot and doting, till Mum at last would say sharply “That’s enough of that” and take her arm and pull her off quite roughly and he would let her go, just staying there in the chair all spread out and laughing and look up at Mum in a way that made Linda sense their romping had been used for something else.

While the novel is written in the third person, we see things mainly from Linda’s point of view. It’s a limited view as, when the novel opens, Linda is 11, but she’s all too aware that a world of violence exists outside of her front door. But what if the violence is in their home too?

Underneath the plot runs a rancid river of sexuality: Den who is “only human,” constantly bullies his wife into sex, and Vera isn’t allowed to refuse. The only girl at school Linda talks to, Marilyn, openly talks about her abusive father who demands sex from his wife post beatings. Girls at school are “in the club,” “the boys wheeled and bellowed like young bulls.” Linda is 11 and doesn’t fully understand the violence that can accompany sex, but she witnesses it and absorbs it nonetheless. She plays with sexual power without being cognizant of the ramifications. Linda is, at first at least, the ‘innocent party,’ but as she grows up with awful knowledge about her parents, her relationship with her father is increasingly warped. Celia Dale weaves a powerful, dark tale, and cleverly allows the reader slivers of adult reality–the reality that Linda doesn’t understand. This is the best Celia Dale novel I’ve read so far.

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Something Like a Love Affair: Julian Symons (1992)

After reading The Colour of Murder , I knew I had to read more Julian Symons. The Colour of Murder is an excellent crime novel: the story of a man who decides to murder his wife. She is, after all, in the way, damn it. While the basic premise is hardly new, in this author’s hands, the book is a delight. So now onto Something Like a Love Affair.

Middle-aged Judith Lassiter is married to architect, Victor. They have no children (more of that later) and live in a pretentious bungalow called Green Diamonds, which Victor designed. Victor runs his father’s company and expects to inherit it after his father’s death. In the meantime, Victor is very involved with local political business–especially town planning and new construction. Judith, who has suffered a nervous breakdown and is on pills to keep her calm, has endured family tragedy and the loss of a baby, but there are other shady doings in her past too. Perhaps this is why she sometimes “felt like two people.” There’s the Judith who is the perfect wife, preparing Victor’s breakfast of oven-warmed croissants daily, just the way he likes them, and the other Judith, “Judith alone,” obsessed with a murder-for-hire case, who observes the efficient preparations of this perfect little vanilla housewife. So there’s a process of disassociation afoot.

The Lassiters have been married for 15 years, but they have had separate bedrooms for 7. Their day-to-day relationship remains superficial. The marriage lacks sex and excitement, but it’s more than that; there’s obviously something wrong under the surface, and Judith has begun sending herself passionate love letters. She even puts the letters on the breakfast table right in front of Victor, but he never asks her about these letters. Sending oneself passionate love letters which arrive in front of one’s husband seems peculiar, or “crackers” as Judith puts it, but it’s really more than that. It’s a step towards acknowledging her desires and also a provocation. Judith writes these letter, posts them and receives them predicting, accurately, her husband’s response. It’s a test. What if she had a real affair?

Victor is a weird one. He never loses his temper and is quite jocular. He’s the sort of character who has this salesman persona, and uses it on everyone–Judith included. Since this persona is just a veneer of whatever is underneath, you can’t help but wonder just who or what the real Victor is.

The unsparing eye of Judith alone might have discerned a man a little under the proper size, no taller than herself, wonderfully neat, dapper, almost always cheerful, unable to pass a looking glass without regarding himself, forever passing a hand through his thick mouse-coloured hair, or touching the streak of his moustache as if to assure himself he was still there. That was the outer man. What would Judith say about the inner one? Nothing at all, for she would be unsure whether such a man existed. Then in a moment, as darkness cancels the picture on a television at the touch of a switch, those thoughts vanished, were replaced by the actuality of the man who sat opposite her across the breakfast table, the man whose life was linked to hers.

To outsiders, prosperous Victor and colourless Judith probably seem boring, and yet a couple of people notice that there is more to Judith than meets the eye. She seems very protected, cosseted, and naïve, but this isn’t the real Judith at all. The Judith who cleans and cooks, the Judith who is the perfect housewife is just off somehow. She’s never fully present. Debbie, the libidinous wife of one of Victor’s associates chums up with Judith and suggests that Judith should have a casual affair, and to help that process along, she enrolls Judith in a driving refresher course which comes with a hunky young driving instructor. Then there’s sexually aggressive policeman Jack Craxton who makes it clear he wants to tango with Judith. A secretive husband and an unhappy wife, add to this murder, and you get more than a touch of Blanche DuBois. If you can’t tell, I loved this one.

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The Golden Couple: Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

In Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen’s domestic thriller, Marissa and Matthew Bishop are The Golden Couple; to outsiders they are enviable. Matthew is a good-looking buff lawyer, and Marissa owns an upscale boutique. Matthew and Marissa have one child together and live in an affluent Washington suburb. The book starts rolling when Marissa seeks counseling from Avery Chambers, a “maverick” therapist who has lost her license (red flag, anyone?) and as the book rolls on, we discover just why she lost her license. Avery’s unorthodox protocol consists of 10 sessions; it’s a sort of shock therapy but without the electricity. In the first session, which, according to Avery, always includes a confession, Marissa confesses to infidelity. Usually each session brings more clarity to Avery’s understanding of her clients’ marriage, but in this case, the more sessions that take place, Avery finds it harder and harder to put her finger on exactly what is wrong with the Bishops’ marriage.

To Avery, Marissa’s view of her marriage isn’t quite real–it’s more of a “curated Instagram” version of life. Matthew seems to love his wife, and although stunned by Marissa’s confession of adultery, he’s willing to work things through. So if things were normal, Avery would conduct her 10 sessions, the rot of the Bishop’s marriage would be revealed and turned over like a compost heap, and then the repair and healing would begin. Hypothetically, that is.

However, there are several complications afoot. Avery is threatened by a mega-pharmaceutical company for her role in a whistleblower event, plus she’s recently widowed and is still dealing with the finality of that situation. Then there’s Matthew who maintains some sort of a relationship with the perfect, blonde Natalie, a former girlfriend. She’s now divorced, flitting in and out of his life, and has more than a passing interest in Matthew. Then there’s Marissa, a woman who is fractured and is unravelling fast but who remains unsure why she isn’t happy in her marriage. Weird things are happening–several stalkers, a bouquet of flowers sent anonymously to Marissa, a nosy employee at Marissa’s boutique who spies on her boss, a mystery assailant and an old fling of Avery’s who shows up and starts snooping. ….

The story goes back and forth with chapters told by Marissa and Avery. This is a tense page turner; at first I thought since Avery was a therapist who lost her license, this was going to be a ‘when therapists go wrong’ book, but no. Avery feels freed by her lack of license, free to engage in therapy that doesn’t follow the rules–therapy that’s invasive. The authors fold out layers and secrets, so that it’s clear that many characters are not quite what they appear to be. I guessed the dark, core secret at the heart of the book, but I enjoyed the ride. Regular readers of this blog know I have a soft spot for therapist novels, and The Golden Couple, a domestic thriller (woman in danger in upscale suburbia) had enough twists and turns to keep me engaged. In non-nonsense strong-minded Avery, I can see a series character here; she’s the most interesting character in the book (Marissa is wimpy) and in Avery’s chapters, more and more information rolls out, until we see what makes this woman tick. You don’t screw with Avery.

(And I highly recommend The Woman Across the Street From the Girl in the Window, a lively, entertaining series which pokes fun of this genre–hitting all the tropes with just the right pitch.)

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The Hearts and Lives of Men: Fay Weldon (1987)

In The Hearts and Lives of Men, author Fay Weldon examines human folly through the lives of the main characters: Clifford Wexford and Helen Lally. When the novel opens, it’s 1960s London. 35-year-old Clifford Wexford is an ambitious art dealer whose current lover, the sharp-edged, unpleasant Angie, a South African Heiress, is also the daughter of Clifford’s boss. Clifford attends a party with dried-up, bitter Angie, but leaves with luminous Helen Lally, the daughter of the temperamental artist and frame maker, John Lally. This is a story of marriage, adultery, Art and greed, played out through the tumultuous relationship between Clifford and Helen.

At first, all is well between Clifford and Helen, but with Angie’s machinations, sowing discord to both Clifford and Helen, it doesn’t take long for things to go south. Thanks to Angie stirring the pot, Clifford “could see all too clearly that Helen was capable of deceit and folly, and lack of judgment, and worse of all, lack of taste.” And Helen knows that Clifford has strayed with Angie, so the Wexford marriage gets off to a bad start. Clifford and Helen’s child, Nell is born on Christmas Day, 1965, but “a marriage that is rapidly put together can rapidly unravel.” Before Nell is even a year old, Clifford and Helen split, and an ugly custody battle ensues. Nell’s childhood, which could have been idyllic, begins to unravel. Nell is left in the care of a nanny guided by Nell’s paternal grandmother’s questionable child rearing beliefs, while Helen, cruelly, is only allowed slight access. Nell becomes a “tug-of-love” baby as her parents fight for her–Helen from maternal instinct and Clifford for spite.

When Helen remarries, Clifford, in a fit of malice hires a man to kidnap Nell. The kidnapping goes horribly wrong, and this tragic event shapes the lives of Clifford, Helen, and Nell. A large amount of the book follows Nell’s life, wrapped with modern fairy tale elements (Fate, wicked stepmother, black magic) as she falls into misfortune. Clifford and Helen must overcome their own negative characteristics before they come to a happy ending. The story shows that some people are gifted with good looks, and good luck, while others, such as Angie, are unlovable. Angie is a miserably unhappy character, but she makes her own misery:

Reader, to the happy all things come. Happiness can even bring the dead back to life. It is our resentments, our dreariness, our hate and envy, unrecognized by us, which keeps us miserable. Yet these things are in our heads, not out of our hands. We own them; we can throw them out if we choose.

Marriage also comes under scrutiny through Clifford and Helen, of course, but also through artist John Lally and his wife, Evelyn. Poor Evelyn, intimidated by her husband’s temper tantrums and moods, led a miserable (short) life. John Lally’s second wife, Marjorie, however, has an even happy, placid temperament and she simply refuses to absorb her temperamental husband’s nonsense.

“Don’t be absurd, John!” she’d say, when he was unreasonable. “Oh, what a bad temper!” she’d exclaim, apparently unmoved, when he ranted and raved. “John, you can’t be talking about me. You must be talking about yourself!” shed say if he tried to call her names.

He tried in a hundred ways to get the better of her, but couldn’t. If he didn’t speak to her she seemed not to notice, but fetched the neighbours in for coffee and talked to them instead. She made plans to include him but if he didn’t turn up or was late, simply went without him.

Good for Marjorie.

Miserable people spread misery; spite and unkindness bounce back in Weldon’s fate-driven, karmic world. There’s the underlying idea in this playful novel that people can change–obviously psychos are psychos and that doesn’t alter, but apart from that, admitting our mistakes, maturing or even marrying someone more compatible all present opportunities for growth. Interesting to note that the artistic characters seem to be overall happier.

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The Blunderer: Patricia Highsmith

“He felt he was sliding down a sewer.”

In Patricia Highsmith’s psychological novel The Blunderer, two very different married men are connected by murder. The book opens with a violent murder committed by bookshop owner, Kimmel. He follows his wife who is travelling on a bus, and then when the bus stops, he lures her into a remote area with the pretense of talking. He bludgeons and stabs her to death. Walter Stackhouse, a lawyer who is miserable in his marriage to volatile, mentally ill Clara, sees an article about the murder. Since the murdered woman’s husband, Kimmel, has an alibi, and there are no leads, the case is not solved. Walter is interested in the case; he cuts out the article from the paper, and hypothesizing that Kimmel was the murderer, he foolishly visits Kimmel’s grubby bookshop, and mentions the murder. Kimmel imagines that Walter is just another nosy person come to gawk. Things should end there, but since Walter orders a book, Kimmel has Walter’s name and address.

A few scenes illustrate the miserable state of Walter’s marriage. Walter tries hard to please Clara, but she’s mentally ill and is becoming increasingly unstable and demanding. Clara has alienated all of Walter’s friends, and several social gatherings end leaving Walter embarrassed by his wife’s nastiness. We see the Stackhouses’ toxic marriage when they are on a week’s holiday with their unneutered fox terrier, Jeff. At the Lobster Pot, Clara orders her favourite dish: cold lobster with mayonnaise. Walter orders broiled fish:

I thought you’d have meat tonight, Walter. If you have fish again, Jeff gets nothing today.

Alright,” Walter said. “I’ll order a steak. Jeff can have most of it.

“You say it in such a martyred tone!”

The steaks were not very good at the Lobster Pot. Walter had ordered steak the other night because of Jeff. Jeff refused to eat fish. “It’s perfectly okay with me, Clara, let’s not argue about anything our last night.”

“Who’s arguing? You’re trying to start something.”

But after all the steak had been ordered. Clara had had her way, and she sighed and looked off into space, apparently thinking of something else.

At this point, Clara lets unneutered fox terrier off leash and he proceeds to hump people in the restaurant. She’s asked repeatedly by the waiter to curb her dog, and Walter is the one who feels embarrassed and eventually stops the dog–not Clara. The implicit idea here is that there’s a pecking order at the Stackhouse home, and Walter comes after the dog.

Clara’s controlling, manipulative behaviour becomes more hostile and bizarre, and the Stackhouse’s marriage spins out-of-control. Finally, Walter can’t take any more and he asks for a divorce. Clara’s answer is to try suicide; she’s threatened it before. Walter feels horribly guilty after Clara’s suicide attempt and is ready to try to keep the marriage afloat, but her behaviour slides immediately. This time she accuses Walter of having an affair with Ellie, a young woman who attended a party at the Stackhouse residence. Walter storms out, seeks out Ellie, and so an affair begins. Once again Walter tells Clara he wants a divorce. Clara leaves on a bus trip, ostensibly to see her dying mother–a woman she hates. Walter follows the bus–all the time in the back of his head is the idea that he will lure Clara into a remote area near the bus stop, kill her. But something goes wrong. Walter follows the bus with murderous fantasies, but his wife is not at the bus stop. The next day, Clara is found dead at the base of a cliff near the bus stop. She’s an apparent suicide

Enter another major player in the game of cat and mouse, sadistic detective, Corby. He fixates on the connections between the Kimmel murder and the death of Clara Stackhouse. Corby is convinced that there’s a connection between the two widowers, and he begins reinvestigating the Kimmel murder. Corby’s relentless pursuit of Kimmel and Stackhouse brings all three men to breaking point.

Strangers on a Train is a brilliant book about 2 men who meet, by accident on a train, and they have an exchange regarding murder. There’s a similar theme at work here–two men, unhappily married, connected by murder. Walter Stackhouse is an interesting character–a man who contemplates murder and who feels guilty because he thinks about it. He had an opportunity to be free when Clara tried to commit suicide, but he is the one who saved her. Highsmith shows us that there’s a world between thinking about murder and actually committing the deed. Walter does not have what it takes in spite of intense provocation. Kimmel, however, is pure evil.

While the story is gripping, it’s the psychological undercurrents that make this a powerful book. Walter is the blunderer, making one horrible mistake after another. Under scrutiny following his wife’s death, his life unravels. He’s a difficult, complex character–his wife suggests he’s having an affair with Ellie, and he has one. He reads a story about a murdered woman and hypothesizes that her husband is the murderer. The story places the idea to do the same thing in Walter’s mind. There’s more than an edge of masochism and weakness to Walter’s behaviour. Finally Walter has terrible taste in women. To sadistic, mentally abusive Clara, he’s a doormat, and there’s the sense that any relationship with Ellie could go in the same direction. And what’s with Ellie, hanging around sniffing after Walter while his wife is in hospital? There’s one time sex with Ellie, and she says she’s ‘not that kind of girl’ and demands he get a divorce, pronto. Of course, he doesn’t know what normal is, so he was unwise to step from one toxic relationship into another. While sex doesn’t enter the book much, there are masochistic tendencies, a sadist in charge of the case and the impotent Kimmel’s lucrative sideline, so sexual undercurrents are very much at play here. Even with the dog.

(There’s a film version of this–not nearly as good as the book.)

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The Wife: Meg Wolitzer

All over the world, husbands and wives routinely and somewhat pointlessly ask one another: Are you okay? It’s part of the contract; it’s the thing to do, because it implies that you care, that you’re paying attention, when in fact you might be deeply and relentlessly bored.”

Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Wife, is the history of the long, tired marriage of the Castlemans. As with any long marriage, it’s changed over the years, but this marriage also bears the scars of innumerable infidelities, and the total absorption of the wife’s identity into her husband’s career and public persona. Joe Castleman is an author on the tail end of his career, and he and his wife Joan fly to Helsinki to attend a prize ceremony which will give Joe a prestigious award along with a large sum of money. The novel opens with the couple on the plane and with Joan deciding that she’s fed up with Joe and her marriage.

“Will you have some cookies, Mr. Castleman?” a brunette [stewardess] asked him, leaning over with a pair of tongs, and as her breasts slid forward and then withdrew. I could see the ancient mechanism of arousal start to whir like a knife sharpener inside him, a sight I’ve witnessed thousands of times over the decades. “Mrs Castleman?” the woman asked me then, in afterthought, but I declined. I didn’t want her cookies or anything else.

Now age 64, Joan is going to leave her 71-year-old husband. Joe was Joan’s married professor when they met in 1956, and just a few meetings in his office led to sex. According to Joe, his first wife, Carol was “insane. Locked-ward certifiable,” but the affair ‘freed’ him from marriage and brand-new fatherhood. Even though Joe walked out on Carol and new baby Fanny, for years he got mileage out of the idea of the tragic loss of a relationship with his daughter. Over the years, Joan has come to understand that Joe’s display of more introspective, sensitive emotions are simply for show: his ‘anguish’ about losing his baby daughter, supposed ‘sensitivity’ towards women, and he “always did self-doubt very well.” When a writer appears to shows such great sensitivity and understanding towards his subjects, it’s easy, as readers, to assume that he is actually that sensitive and caring in person. But in reality, it’s all about Joe. Always has been. Always will.

The book follows the trajectory of the Castleman’s marriage–a relationship which is established immediately with Joan as Joe’s helpmeet, cheerleader, and general fan. Yet Joan’s first glance at Joe’s early story is a shock. It’s shallow and cliched, but Joan doesn’t tell him it’s crap, because after all she exists as a mirror to reflect back Joe’s monolithic ego. Joan supported Joe after he lost his college position, and so it became very necessary to Joan that Joe succeed–that all the mess, sacrifice (her own writing) and upheaval was actually worth it. Joe’s first novel, The Walnut, a huge success, was “pure autobiography.” His success continued for decades, but his last two novels have been mediocre and his popularity, his relevance, is fading.

Yet critics had always admired Joe’s vision of contemporary American marriage, which seemed to plumb the female sensibility as thoroughly as it did the male, but amazingly without venom, without blame. And early on in his career, his novels had made the leap into Europe, where he was considered even more important than in the States. Joe’s work was from the old, postwar “marital” school–husbands and wives stranded in tiny apartments or boxy, drafty colonials in suburban streets with names like Bethany Court or Yellow Swallow Drive. The men were deep but sour, the women, sad and lovely, the children disaffected. The families were crumbling, full of factions, American. Joe included his own life, using details from his childhood, his early adulthood and then his two marriages.

Joan and Joe eventually have three children–and of course they exist only to extend, brighten or tease out Joe’s image for his friends and public. Joan, who has already sacrificed any sort of career to be Joe’s personal sounding board/ therapist/pimp, also sacrifices her relationships with her children to follow Joe around the globe. Yes no wonder their marriage is successful, because it’s all about Joe, and if Joan ever took her foot off that pedal, she would go the way of Carol in a heartbeat.

The Castleman’s marriage seems a success to outsiders, mainly because it continues, but it continues with intense repeat humiliations for Joan, with her turning a blind eye to innumerable affairs. By the time I was halfway into the book, I was waiting for the big scene where Joan told Joe what a dickhead he is, but then again she doesn’t exactly have the moral high ground. Like every marriage, it’s complicated, and Joan is, at times, complicit in Joe’s tackier behaviour–helping Joe with his ‘research’ on prostitutes and even orgies. …The tremendously disappointing ending undermined the book’s entire message. The story jettisoned from the launch pad with marital fury and fizzed, anticlimactically, with keeping up that old, stale image of a united marital front. With Joe’s gigantic ego and intense selfishness, I waited for him to get his comeuppance, but alas I was destined for disappointment, although there are hints of a possible future revenge.

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