BOOK REVIEW: 2 Novels Explore The Big Romantic Bargains We Strike In The Name Of Love
BY MAUREEN CORRIGAN
You fall in love with a person, but you get a package deal. That’s one of the big messages of two new novels that ruminate on love and family, particularly the family that’s thrust upon you when you happen to mate with one of their kith or kin.
The heroine of Katherine Heiny’s buoyant new novel, Early Morning Riser, is a young second grade teacher named Jane who lives in Boyne City, Mich. On the very first page of the novel, Jane locks herself out of her house, calls a locksmith, and winds up spending the night and, eventually, her life with him.
But the relationship is not without complications. That hunky locksmith’s name is Duncan and Jane thinks he “looked like the Brawny paper towel man.” But Duncan turns out to have bedded most of the available women in Boyne City. He’s still friendly with a lot of them, including his ex-wife, Aggie, who’s remarried to an insurance guy with the personality of a houseplant.
Duncan also works as a furniture restorer and he employs a helper named Jimmy Jellico, who people in town describe as “slow learning.” By the middle of this novel, Jimmy is permanently installed in Jane and Duncan’s spare bedroom and Aggie and her houseplant husband are regulars for dinner parties. How did a fling calcify into an alternative family — one that Jane is pretty sure she wouldn’t have consciously chosen?
Heiny writes in a simple droll style about ordinary people who are often being less than their best selves. Here, for instance, is Jane’s take on the ordeal of parent-teacher conferences that she’s required to hold for an entire school day each semester:
All parents want to hear good things about their children, but sometimes you had to say bad things. If you said the bad things too subtly, the parents didn’t believe you. If you said the bad things too baldly, the parents got upset. Actually they often didn’t believe you anyway and then they got upset, too. It was like having an intervention for an alcoholic every twenty minutes for an entire working day.
In addition to Early Morning Riser, Heiny has just written a foreword to a new edition of Laurie Colwin’s 1978 classic, Happy All The Time. (And, as a quick aside, I’ll share the great news that all 10 of Colwin’s books are being reissued this year.) Both Colwin and Heiny are routinely — and, I think, rightly —described as literary descendants of Jane Austen, sharing Austen’s essentially comic world view.
The humor in award-winning writer Joan Silber’s new novel, Secrets of Happiness, is more subdued; it’s rueful rather than charming. Secrets of Happiness opens with a middle-aged gay lawyer named Ethan recalling his childhood in Manhattan and how his father, who was in what he called “the rag trade” often traveled on business trips to Asia.
Fast forward to the day when Ethan, along with his mother and sister, discover that dad has a second family. It turns out the hostess in the Thai restaurant in Queens they all like to go to for special dinners is a woman Ethan’s dad brought over from Thailand years ago and, together, they’ve had two sons who are now teenagers.
You’d expect that bombshell would send Ethan’s family reeling and it sort of does: His mother, for instance, goes off for a year to Thailand herself to teach English and backpack. But something else happens in this expansive and elegantly crafted novel: Silber begins handing off the story, chapter by chapter, to other narrators, among them Ethan’s newly-discovered half-brothers, the ex-girlfriend of one of those half-brothers, and Ethan’s fickle present lover’s former lover.
It’s not like everyone knows each other, but they’re connected in some cosmic way, almost like a horizontal extended family tree that can only be observed from space. And they all have such smart things to say about love — whether it’s Ethan ruing the blindness of romance or, as he puts it, “the sunny opacity that love can induce” or this question from a young acquaintance of his named Nadia. Nadia asks: “How do people make these colossal bargains about what they decide to put up with?”
The characters in both Silber’s and Heiny’s novels are reckoning with the outcome of those colossal romantic bargains, not only about what they decided to put up with, but also who — all those other people, family and friends, bound to the beloved. Inextricably, part of the package deal.