Man in the Middle

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By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, May 2, 2008

FRIDAY NIGHTS

By Joanna Trollope

Bloomsbury. 330 pp. $24.99

"A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," Gloria Steinem is supposed to have said, but that was wishful thinking. Early, early on in the feminist movement, when everything seemed new and possible, I listened in a meeting to a young woman raise both her voice and her fists in the air as she proclaimed women's independence from men. Then, an hour or two later, when her turn as orator was done, I heard her confide to a friend, in an entirely different tone, "He said he'd call me but he didn't. Do you think I ought to call him? Or should I just wait?"

There's no point in railing against this. It's just (one half of) the human condition. Forty years later, just last week, a friend and I were speaking about another friend who'd had her heart broken by a geezer. Even at our age of comparative dignity and serenity, we're still susceptible to the pain of thwarted love.

This intractable, immutable effect that men have on women is the subject of Joanna Trollope's new novel, "Friday Nights," a story of three generations of women (and children) who have put together a fragile bond of friendship, only to have it forever changed by the addition of a perfectly ordinary man named Jackson.

But before Jackson comes upon the scene, we are introduced to the women and kids, who have met each other not entirely by choice. A Friday night social group is put together by Eleanor, an elderly retiree who lives in a shabby but interesting flat in a London suburb. Eleanor's life has been her work, and after that work ends, she feels at sea. Always self-reliant and curious, she looks out her window and eventually discovers a couple of disconsolate mothers, one with a toddler, one with a baby, always alone. Eleanor makes up her mind, steps out in the street and meets (1) Paula, who's had an affair with a married man and is left with her son, Toby, and (2) Lindsay, whose husband died before her baby, Noah, was born. Eleanor invites them in for a Friday night drink. The young women think she's cracked, but they're desperate, and they accept.

Then Lindsay, shyly, asks if her younger sister, Jules, might be included. Jules, a classic teenage London nomad who sleeps on the couches of friends and wears vintage clothes, yearns only to be a DJ in a nightclub. She takes a strange comfort in being with Eleanor, though, because Eleanor is utterly content just as she is. The last two members of this improvised group are Blaise Campbell (the only character here with a last name, as far as I can see), an ambitious entrepreneur, and Karen, her business partner, who works from home, supporting a pair of little girls and an artist-husband who determinedly does nothing for a living.

Eleanor, Paula, Lindsay, Jules, Blaise and Karen, all at different positions on the woman-spectrum, forge an unlikely friendship that lasts for several years. Then Paula, the most ambitious of the lot, finds a much better job, is gifted with an expensive loft by the guy who wouldn't marry her, and finally hits the real jackpot: that genuine man named Jackson, who's 40, single and cute. How he changes everything -- every relationship, every life-narrative -- is the heart of this story.

No one knows anything about Jackson; he functions, for a while, as Paula's boyfriend, that's all anyone knows. But everyone's wishes and needs are thrust up against him like hot, malleable metal, and that metal changes shape. This is certainly not a new literary idea. Such differing works as "The Music Man," "The Rainmaker," "Picnic" and even "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" drop a lone man into a flat cocktail of life, and suddenly that cocktail begins to fizz. Jackson doesn't do anything much except act like a guy, but his influence is so radical that every character is transformed, including the children and even the other men.

Don't be too quick to dismiss this skillfully crafted novel as mere "women's fiction." Men tend to scorn this stuff -- to be seen reading it in public would be like wearing pantyhose to work. But men could learn a lot from some earnest perusal of books like these -- about their own intrinsic power and, more vulgarly perhaps, their ability to score -- because, despite their sincere protestations, women need men like lungs need air.

Sunday in Book World

ยท Remembering Barry Goldwater.


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