THE HANDYMAN. By Penelope Mortimer. St. Martin's/Joan Kahn. 208 pp. $13.95.
PENELOPE MORTIMER, a British contemporary of Doris Lessing in age and of Margaret Drabble in subject, is not widely known in the United States, despite the success of her fine novel, The Pumpkin Eater (made into a film starring Anne Bancroft). This is a pity, for her eight novels -- this is her ninth -- detail with sympathy and irony women whose lives are shaped by marriage, motherhood, and domesticity. In fact, she has been a unique chronicler of typical women's experiences over the last four decades.
Her novels of the '50s and '60s trace the dilemmas of the emotionally dependent women of her generation, caught between the satisfaction and the suffocation of domestic life. In these stories she presciently explored the destructive consequences of the "housewife's disease" long before Betty Friedan diagnosed the condition. Mortimer's more recent novels survey the fallout of the "feminine mystique" as her female characters move into middle age: children grow up and depart, parents die, spouses leave them (for younger women) or die. These women's struggles to achieve control of their lives are poignant object lessons in the necessities of female emotional and economic survival.
That challenge is precisely the starting point of The Handyman. Gerald Muspratt's death is reported on the first page and Phyllis, his wife of 45 years, gradually discovers the traps hidden beneath the tranquil surface of her life. First, her status changes: once part of a pair, as a widow she is the "extra" who is either patronized or ignored. She begins to feel increasingly superfluous, leaning on her two grown children as she reorients herself to life as a solitary woman. Eventually she tries to precipitate a positive change by moving to a run-down house in an apparently tranquil (but actually moribund) English country village named Cryck.
There Phyllis Muspratt meets the people who fatefully reshape not only her sense of herself but her life. Her nearest neighbor, colorful and eccentric Rebecca Broune, provides a vivid contrast to Phyllis' vulnerable gentility. The rugged survivor of three marriages, Rebecca cherishes her independence and unorthodoxy. A one-time novelist and currently intrepid gardener who herself has gone to seed, she appears with "wild, greying hair, baggy denim, shapeless clod-hopping shoes; what remained of her fingernails were ridged with earth; through constantly holding a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, one eye had become smaller and redder than the other. Her appearance was a challenge which nowadays few people were curious enough to accept." Rebecca's stalwart independence inspires Phyllis, who determines to shore up her ramshackle house (and life) by engaging the handyman Rebecca recommends.
AT THIS POINT the novel moves into high gear. The handyman, Fred Sherry, is a dapper, energetic man in his fifties who moonlights as a household Mr. Fixit. Attending to major repairs in Phyllis' house during intermittent evenings, he assumes a disarming familiarity with "Phil," making occasional provocative comments and innuendoes. Taken aback, Phyllis feels helpless to challenge his improprieties, since he also makes her feel competent, attractive, and less lonely. She finds herself drinking brandy with Fred after he finishes his work -- and then drinking alone after he leaves, in an effort to resist the feelings that he awakens.
Distracting the reader, as Phyllis Muspratt is distracted, from seeing where events inevitably must lead, Mortimer skillfully propels her story forward with maximum tension. Because of the handyman's manipulative charm and her own emotional susceptibility, Phyllis is totally unprepared for what Fred really is: a man who is as efficient at emotional blackmail as he is at home repair. The bill he is reluctant to proffer might be paid in sexual favors, he suggests, rather than cash. Thus does Mortimer detail a kind of emotional rape, with consequences as extensive as its physical equivalent. Moreover, the job Fred neglects to finish in Phyllis' house becomes crucial in the novel's stunning finale.
Other characters fill out the story of Phyllis' gradual slippage into disillusionment and disaster. Her son and daughter, each preoccupied with the disarray of their own affairs, are hardly aware of Phyllis' struggle to take charge of her life. As in others of Mortimer's novels, the mother remains the emotional pivot for her children who, even as adults, are incapable of seeing her as a person with needs of her own. Mortimer deftly develops the subsidiary plot, as Phyllis' bachelor son "grows up" and her married daughter confronts her straying husband.
Yet it is the unfolding relationship between the vulnerable Phyllis and her deceptively charming handyman -- between the spider and fly -- that provides the mainspring of this taut tale. With a sharp eye for what is both laughable and poignant in human relationships, Mortimer shows us how small errors -- of perception, action, and neglect -- may produce disproportionate consequences. Catching the reader by surprise, she weaves the casual details of everyday life into a fine story of suspense and emotional crisis.