Reviewed by Aisling Foster
Times Literary Supplement
"Nobody wants to be a second wife . . . . It's like moving into a new house that still has half the previous owner's furniture in it. You'd like to get rid of the all-plaid living-room set, but somehow you're stuck with it, forever.
"In my case, the plaid living-room set is called Theresa."
Morality tales are never quite like this. This one is set in California, in "a country where a divorce occurs every thirty seconds"; each character is a blend of modern knowingness and storybook classic. The narrator is delightfully lacking in the preachy righteousness of the genre, describing the confusion of a woman who, after five years of marriage, finds herself pushed aside as her husband and hysterical ex-wife continue to tear one another apart. Living in the same neighbourhood and sharing custody of their two children, Theresa produces a non-stop flood of telephone calls and bills, causing him to approach the mail box "like a person heading off into the rioting streets, with a flashlight and a club in hand, expecting a mugging".
His second wife/narrator is, we are told late in the novel, nicknamed "Pan". Young and sweet, she still nurtures pagan yearnings and has clearly learned more than enough about the big bad world. This is conveyed by her mocking narrative voice, in cahoots with the mesmerized reader. Before she met her husband, Pan was writing a Dictionary of Betrayal, a deeply cynical work inspired by some dark and largely unexplained experiences which continue to loom at the edges of her mind. Alan, the husband who "saved" her from such musings (promising "to keep me like a key, put me in his pocket"), is a sharp-jawed hero, so embattled by the pressures of work and home that there is little left of the "good heart and a nice hand at word play" which she once found so attractive. His two boys, aged ten and twelve, are suffering, too, developing "the facial twitch of children" trapped in a war. As for Theresa, her "sour mouth and a dagger tongue" make her, like every witch in literature, the embodiment of fury.
Richard, the footloose stranger, lopes into the story like a wolf. In fact, he is an envelope salesman, a bear of a man who discovers Pan in her workplace (in a stationery store) and gives her the equally unworldly name of "Angel". His warmth and enthusiasm suggest the possibility of escape. Mutual understanding grows, as Richard "coaxes words and thoughts out of me like a patient piano teacher". Angel's battered feelings return, too, whispering ever more confidently from the page to describe her love for Richard "like a secret corset I wore . . . wrapped around my waist, keeping me safe and contained". When Alan sees them holding hands in a local park, relationships hit the buffers with a horribly funny jolt. Arguments become desperate and foolish, as when husband and wife disagree about Richard's "substantial" size: "He's fat. I saw him. Pillsbury Doughboy. You like that? You find that attractive?". Pan's voice murmurs in our ear: "There's nothing that quite matches the acid contempt the thin have for the less than thin, is there?".
This novel is unlike Sylvia Brownrigg's last book The Delivery Room (2006). Her quirky style makes every line count; she employs a kind of lively writing which recalls the work of Laurie Colvin. In fact, her narrative is punctuated with such concentrated wit that by this point in the story, more than halfway through the book, one may have forgotten its title and intent. Yet for all its crazy humour and diverting jumble of events, it is a morality tale. Good must be rewarded and the wicked punished, although there is nothing predictable about the route to this almost-happy ending.
Described with the shutter speed of an old-fashioned chase, Pan's final odyssey with Richard across San Francisco Bay widens our understanding of her past and allows a kind of reordering of much else. But perhaps the narrative's greatest subversive act is to suggest that American lives may, after all, allow the possibility of a second act.
Aisling Foster's most recent novel is Safe in the Kitchen.
Books mentioned in this post