E.M. Forster’s familiar mandate “only connect” takes on new shades of meaning in our age of electronic hyper-connectivity. With this well-chosen epigraph, Melanie Gideon establishes the wry tone of her amusing first novel for grown-ups. “Wife 22” is about the growing disconnect between an Oakland, Calif., husband and wife. More and more, Facebook and texting interfere with true communication as they approach their 20th wedding anniversary. This modern-day, mixed-media comedy of manners is as up-to-the-minute as your favorite Twitter feed.
Gideon’s appealingly forthright narrator, Alice Buckle, is the 44-year-old wife of a handsome advertising executive. They have two adolescent children. She is also a frustrated playwright and part-time elementary school drama teacher. She’s struggling with the same vague “unrelenting, existential kind of emptiness” that the author wrote about so successfully in “The Slippery Year” (2009), her endearingly self-deprecating book of personal essays about carpool catatonia and other modern sources of ennui. Bored, vaguely discontented with her life and about to hit the “tipping-point year” that marks the age at which her mother died, Alice decides to take part in an online survey about the state of marriage in the 21st century. Dubbed Wife 22, she finds the anonymity liberating. But she becomes increasingly enamored of her assigned researcher. He not only asks the searching questions that her husband, William, no longer bothers with, but he pays attention to her answers.
Wife 22 soon finds herself up against the wall with “Researcher 101” — the Facebook wall, that is, where they’ve set up accounts using characters’ names from their favorite books to facilitate communication. Under Relationship Status, he writes, “It’s complicated,” and then explains, “Married, questioning, hopeful.” Later, when Alice asks why he has posted a photo of his hand, his response calls into question the integrity of the survey and raises an armada of red flags: “Because I wanted you to imagine it on the back of your neck.”
Oh, my. Could this be part of a psychology experiment? Or is poor Alice the victim of a scam? Whatever it is, we well understand her eagerness to check her Facebook feed continually.
As anyone who has ever been seduced by an epistolary or e-mail flirtation knows, it’s easy to mistake this sort of exhilarating, limited connection for real intimacy. Gideon plays with the divide between virtual reality and IRL — In Real Life — noting how when communicating online in short phrases, “There’s no way to judge tone.” Her characters’ missteps highlight the dangers of inadvertent overexposure when using social media. Attempting a “digital diet,” Alice muses, “When did the real world become so empty? When everybody abandoned it for the Internet?”
Gideon keeps things lively by jumping between Alice’s exchanges with friends and family, both online and in person, and her alternately thoughtful and terse answers to the online questionnaire (whose questions are coyly hidden from us until much later). But, as with most content on the Web, there’s excess. The descriptions of Alice’s bereavement support group (30 years after losing her mother) and a series of potluck dinners are eminently expendable. And the introduction of Alice’s best friend, a divorce lawyer who’s about to marry her lesbian lover, makes Gideon seem to be trying to cover too many bases.
But even with these surpluses, “Wife 22” channels the playful but incisive vibe of Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail.” Like Ephron, Gideon is especially adept at puncturing contemporary vanities, with sharp riffs on bikini waxes and the “ego surfing” of self-Googling. Hilariously, Susan Boyle’s “I Dreamed a Dream” blares every time Alice starts her car, and a six-month wait for a dermatology mole-scan appointment is magically reduced to a few days if she’s willing to consider injectables. “Men don’t wear lavender,” William objects when she buys him a pale purple shirt. “Yes, but men wear thistle,” she responds, and then comments triumphantly: “Sometimes all you need to do to get men to agree with you is call things by another name.”
Keeping a long marriage fresh can be more complicated, however. Readers will relate to Alice’s plaint: “I want to have a conversation with my husband that goes deeper than insurance policies and taxes and what time will you be home and did you call the guy about the gutters, but we seem to be stuck here floating around on the surface of our lives like kids in a pool propped up on those Styrofoam noodles.”
In the crowded pool of novels about midlife crises, “Wife 22” has the buoyancy of water wings.
McAlpin reviews books for NPR and The Post, among other news outlets.
By Melanie Gideon
Ballantine. 380 pp. $26