Husband and Wife by Leah Stewart
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
About six weeks ago, I reviewed "The Myth Of You & Me" by this same author. That book blew me away and became an instant short list all-time favorite. So, naturally, I was eager to read something else by Leah Stewart. That's always a dicey proposition. There have been times when I have gone years after reading a particularly beloved novel, before reading that author again, because of the feeling that they couldn't possibly delight me so very much again; it seems like tempting fate. Sometimes, an author has just gone right ahead and blown me away a second time, but sometimes my caution turns out to be well founded.
"Husband And Wife" is not a bad book. Leah Stewart is a keen observer of people and daily life, and tells a story from a woman's perspective extremely well, which I love. The story is simple: Sarah has two small children, a job, and a husband who has just confessed to her that he's not only had an affair, but that he's then written a novel about it entitled "Adultery", a thread that seems to be forgotten half way through. The whole of "Husband And Wife" is Sarah trying to sort out who she was, who she's become, and whether or not she wants to stay with Nathan, her straying husband. I would have liked the book better if I had liked Sarah better.
She spends an awfully lot of time obsessing about her arty grad school days, during which she met Nathan and a group of other friends. She became a poet, "not a high school or a blog-post poet, but a certified poet". Speaking as a blog-post poet who can write rings around this character, based on the two poems contained in the book, I wonder about this "certified" business. A few random publications in small press magazines? To me, Sarah and her grad school crew all sound like they spend more time and energy trying to be arty, and ironic, and strike a pose, than in actually creating art. A beret and a wry tone don't mean a thing. Besides, Sarah hasn't written a line in two years.
She's become a mother and a breadwinner and the time, heart, energy and patience that those things require are very well depicted in this book. If she had been fighting to save her family, or resolved to start a new life as a single mother, I would have connected with her and cared about her a whole lot more. Instead, she goes chasing the ghost of her grad school days, when she and her friends got stoned and had impassioned arguments about Gertrude Stein, and gave each other seven-volume sets of Proust for birthday gifts. People like that just give me a cramp. Indeed, I wondered as I read this, whether it was the demands of family life that killed her poetry, or if it wasn't more accurately her comfort zone of ironic distance and squeamish disdain for real sincerity that did the deed. Lots of people smoked dope and talked shit. It just isn't very interesting, except, apparently, to Sarah, for whom it is all a lost ideal.
The best sections of this book were the descriptions of Sarah's children. She got that absolutely right; the deep love, the maddening moments of tantrums and chaos, the way having children makes a woman's life, and even her body, not just her own anymore, and the price and rewards that brings. More of that, and a lot less of the nostalgic, snobby navel-gazing would have made this a better book.
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