By Sarah L. Courteau,
who is the literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE
By Julie Buxbaum
Dial. 306 pp. $25
At first blush, the heroine of Julie Buxbaum's charming first novel seems like a "Sex and the City" caricature. Emily Haxby is a 29-year-old lawyer with a glamorous Manhattan social life that includes high-heel-clad nights on the town with her gal pal, martinis consumed like potato chips, and couplings with her boyfriend in a Saks dressing room. As "The Opposite of Love" opens, she breaks up with that boyfriend -- a doctor who has the bad form to contemplate proposing and, in Emily's dreams, who literally tastes like chicken. Surely an affair with her own Mr. Big, Carrie Bradshaw's elusive soul mate in the HBO series, is just a page turn away.
Don't cue the spunky theme song just yet. One of the pleasures of Buxbaum's novel is her manipulation of the conventions of "Sex and the City" and its literary ilk. Emily's love life is but one complication among many in her life. She's been at her big-time law firm long enough for the charm of her big-time salary to wear off, and she can see her work for the corporate drudgery it is. Her supervisor on an important new case ogles her chest whenever she walks into his office. Her beloved grandfather is sliding into dementia. And since her mother's death 15 years ago, she and her father have grown so distant that they rustle papers into the phone at each other, pretending to be too busy to talk. Underneath the patina of success, Emily feels oddly empty.
These are not insignificant problems, but neither are they extraordinary. What gives this novel substance is that Emily must deal with them without the assistance of scene cuts and one-liner windups. Though "The Opposite of Love" is a very funny book, its humor doesn't come at the expense of emotional realism. The requisite circle of friends is supportive, but there isn't a "You go, girl" cheerleader in the bunch. And after her breakup, Emily doesn't fall in bed with the next man she meets. In fact, despite her frank talk about sex, she has very little of it in the book.
Buxbaum is able to cleverly tweak our expectations in part because her heroine, at nearly every turn, finds her own scripted expectations dashed. Take the "It's over" talk that sets Emily's narrative in motion: "The fantasy breakup in my head played out in pantomime; no explanations, only rueful smiles, a kiss good-bye on the cheek, a farewell wave thrown over a shoulder. The sting of nostalgia and the high of release, a combustible package, maybe, but one we would both understand and appreciate." Instead, her boyfriend, a bit of barbecue sauce clinging to his lip, is devastated.
For the most part, Emily's trials and triumphs have a scruffy authenticity. When her boss comes on to her on a business trip, she desperately tries to maintain her professional decorum in a scene that is both funny and all too believable. The next day, struggling to return to the business of deposing witnesses for their big case, Emily finds herself "acting particularly deferential toward him," and feels ashamed that she let his behavior rattle her; later, she gets her vengeance not through an elaborate "gotcha" plan but in an unpremeditated moment.
The author knows whereof she writes. A former lawyer and Ivy League law school grad herself, Buxbaum is only a year older than her heroine, and Buxbaum's mother, like her fictional creation's, died when she was 14.
Only when Emily begins to right herself does this sure-footed novel stumble a little. There's far too much reliance on geriatric wisdom -- from a motherly friend of her grandfather's, and a whole passel of women at his nursing home who, during a book club meeting, chat fondly about finding "The One." Further, the resolution of Emily's relationship with her father is too swift to be entirely convincing. If in these feel-good final chapters the novel loses some of its comic bite, that's hardly surprising; Emily's satisfaction doesn't play as easily for laughs as her disaffection does.
The real pleasure of this book isn't to be found in moments of high comedy but in the voice of the slightly self-deprecating, slightly sardonic narrator, wise to the world but not yet to herself. What's important is that she's willing to pick her way toward clarity, one difficult step at a time. That a tale about a modern young woman who squarely confronts her garden-variety challenges can feel this fresh is striking. Perhaps, after all, there's something to be said for that geriatric wisdom, which these days is applied less often than it ought to be: A little less self-pity, and a little more gumption. Or, in today's parlance: "Suck it up."