Book Review: 'New World Monkeys' by Nancy Mauro

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By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 9, 2009

NEW WORLD MONKEYS

By Nancy Mauro

Shaye Areheart. 293 pp. $23

Yes, there is chick-lit, and yes, there are romance novels and bushels of memoirs by women about everything from abusive dads to disgraceful addictions to the raising of children with disabilities of one sort or another, and a goodly share of nature-inspired, I-ran-away-from-my-husband-to-shuck-oysters-and-find-myself accounts, but "New World Monkeys" belongs to a distinct subgenre that we don't see too often anymore: Educated-Women's Lit. I don't know why these books have become scarce, except maybe the educated women who might be interested in such a novel are spending their time being gainfully employed. Or who knows? Maybe the problems addressed here are no longer the primary problems of educated women.

At any rate, "New World Monkeys" closely resembles the works of Alison Lurie, Diane Johnson and Alice Adams. These admirable, estimable women began to write during the 1960s and flourished in the '70s. Except for Adams, who's no longer with us, they continue to write. In the 1960s it was still fairly unusual for women to write serious novels on a regular basis, i.e., to define the universe in print the way they saw it, and they were met with the expected push-back. What business did a lovely wife and mother have running her mind and mouth, and then transferring those words to the printed page? More to the point, what on Earth did they know about life? But the women -- and let's not forget Mary McCarthy more than a decade before them -- were merciless. They took what they knew, which was a great deal since they'd been carefully educated, and added it to what they'd observed of home, husbands and children, and committed refined literary mayhem on anyone who wandered within range. They knew more than all their characters combined and weren't afraid to let you know it.

In "New World Monkeys," Nancy Mauro -- a graduate of the MFA program at the University of British Columbia -- writes about the plight of the kind of couple whom Lurie used to refer to as "elderly young people" -- those who have moved a few steps beyond "happily after," taken a look around and begun to be furious and disappointed at what life has dished out to them. Duncan and Lily have been married for a few years. Lily is smarter than her husband, has loftier ambitions and a far more ferocious drive. (Well, what else would you expect from an educated female novelist?) This point is brought home in the early pages of the novel when the pair, driving from Manhattan on a darkened road to a quaint Upstate village where Lily has inherited a ramshackle mansion, inadvertently run into what they believe to be a wild boar. It's a great, terrible beast, and despite having been severely bashed into by the car, it's still alive. Lily hands Duncan a tire iron to finish off the creature, but Duncan hesitates, definitively proving himself to be the lily-livered one. Lily herself delivers the fatal blow.

They dump the pig in a ditch and drive on to the village of Osterhagen, where they find out that the animal was someone's beloved pet and the proclaimed mascot of the community. . . . Their plans for the summer, however, must go on. Lily will stay in her musty ancestral home to work on her dissertation; Duncan will keep working at an advertising agency in the city and drive up on weekends. They welcome the chance to get away from each other; they're both sick of the marriage. They haven't had sex in recent memory and spend their time snubbing each other in elaborate ways that only a person who's watched a first marriage go sour might fully understand.

But Lily's grim disposition leaves her with no friends except the town's peeping Tom. This character, Lloyd, is by far the most loquacious of the grown-ups here: "The world's lost every last bit of grace," he tells her. "In its mad rush it's become a giant, voyeuristic carnival, right? Get on the computer and there you have it . . . pictures, video, live feed." And so on, for 17 more lines. The pig's owner turns out to be a rabble-rousing, cannon-shooting freak who leads mobs in his spare time. Lily agonizes about her dissertation, which purports to be about the pointed arch in pre-Renaissance times, but she doesn't write a word. (We hear paragraphs about this arcane subject, though.)

Back in Manhattan, Duncan develops a soft-core campaign for a bad blue-jeans company that features girl-on-girl action set in scenes from (his idea of) the Vietnam War. Pathetic, the both of them.

And then they discover human bones buried in their back yard.

It would appear that the author is quite aware of what she's doing. This is a story about a story, and on Page 102, Nancy Mauro herself peeks out of the narrative to impart this message: Lily and Duncan have arrived "at this moment, with the singular task of deciding whether to leave together. The others -- the boar and the nanny, the pervert, the artillerymen . . . are complications they have invited to avoid being alone with the truth."

Put another way, the author has decorated her old, familiar story with all sorts of extraneous props to conceal the drab tale of an estranged couple thinking up reasons not to have sex with each other. Duncan's efforts in that direction are weary and tentative, and Lily insults him at every turn. ("The literary world can sleep soundly tonight," she sneers after he injures his hand and can't write -- but of course he doesn't write anyway, except for his terrible advertising efforts.) This new author has set herself something of an academic challenge: tracing the moves of a soundly unsympathetic couple in a minimally plotted story as they cling stubbornly to their own delusions while waiting for the possibility of a divorce. Will that divorce transpire? Only the author, who is 10 times smarter than all her characters combined, knows. But she forgot to make us care.

See can be reached at http://www.carolynsee.com.

Sunday in Outlook

-- Are boys' brains built differently than girls' brains?

-- Did you hear about the book on rumors?

-- The last days of WASP splendor.

-- The violent twilight of our oil dependence.

-- And David Small's graphic memoir.


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