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FICTION

Book review: 'The Pregnant Widow,' by Martin Amis, reviewed by Ron Charles

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By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

THE PREGNANT WIDOW

Inside History

This Story

By Martin Amis

Knopf.

370 pp. $26.95

There's not a smarter, cleverer writer alive than Martin Amis. With that encyclopedic mind and father Kingsley's comic timing, he's a riveting stylist who walks across every sentence as though it were a line stretched taut between wit and erudition.

Why, then, has he become such an exasperating novelist?

After the badly beaten "Yellow Dog" (2003) and the tepid reception to "House of Meetings" (2007), he's back with "The Pregnant Widow," a coming-of-age story set amid the sexual revolution. In this nakedly autobiographical novel, a handful of topless bombshells and horny college kids spend the summer of 1970 at an Italian castle with nothing to do but plot their next orgasms. The setting is exotic, the subject is erotic, but the story is necrotic. For more than 300 pages of ironic dithering about who will have sex with whom, the climax is endlessly delayed like a painful case of literary priapism.

The Hamlet of all this prolonged sexual deliberation is Keith Nearing, a 20-year-old university student who's staying in Campania with his girlfriend, Lily (34-25-34). They've recently gotten back together, but "for reasons that were not yet clear to him," Amis writes, Lily "seemed to be losing her sexual otherness. She was like a first cousin or an old family friend, someone he had played with as a child." How much more alluring is Lily's strikingly gorgeous, frequently nude gal-pal Scheherazade (37-23-33), who complains piteously about how lonely she is at night. Yikes.

At the start of all this, Keith is a romantic -- granted, a libidinous, easily shocked romantic. Watching the debauchery around him, poor Keith can't help but feel "the tingle of license" and wonder, "Where were the police? Where on earth were the police? . . . It kept astonishing him -- how weak the prohibitions always turned out to be."

The sexual antics in the Italian castle play out as he's cramming through a syllabus of English novels, particularly those great comedies of manners by Jane Austen, in which a similarly privileged group of young people strategize about their potential attachments. But oh, how things have degraded since Jane set down that universally acknowledged truth. "The English novel, at least in its first two or three centuries, asked only one question. Will she fall? Will she fall, this woman? What'll they write about," Keith wonders, "when all women fall?"

"The Pregnant Widow" is one overlong, frequently hilarious but deeply aggravating answer to that loaded question from an author who portrays his female characters as breasts, bottoms or dead.


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