REVENGE OF THE
By Elizabeth Buchan
Viking. 341 pp. $24.95
The title is probably the best part. Such a horrific tingle to it, and just the faintest whiff of enigma. A middle-aged man's revenge, after all, could take only so many forms: impractical cars, frenzies of Rogaine, enforced exposure to the History Channel. But a middle-aged woman . . . now that's bound to be subtler and more subversive. Something altogether delicious, yes?
Well, no. The promised revenge is, I fear, on the order of being a good and happy person in trying circumstances, and Elizabeth Buchan's novel, far from being subversive, is every bit as generic as the title it bears. Which is to say it takes the story of a woman abandoned by her husband and turns it into . . . the story of a woman abandoned by her husband.
Start with the woman: Rose Lloyd, 48, a Sunday books editor for a London newspaper, living in a Victorian terrace on Lakey Street. A woman who can lay legitimate claim to completeness: career, friends, two grown children and a devoted hubby who works for the same paper. Rose is content. "Long ago," she says, "I had settled on what I wanted. Put crudely, my ambitions were to be a good mother, a Good Wife (to Nathan, of course), and have my career. I wanted others in my life to nurture. Not very grand, certainly not earth-shattering, some might say boring." Into that vale of pleasing tedium disaster strikes: Husband Nathan announces he has fallen in love with Rose's assistant, Minty, a 29-year-old of diabolic thinness, "smart, sharp, glossy, free-ranging." Not content with stealing Rose's man, Minty then goes on to filch Rose's job. Whereupon luckless Rose retreats into the "personal Calvary" of pain and enforced idleness and endures such humiliations as lying sick in her bed while Nathan and his little chippie scurry about her.
"Affairs happened to other people," she thinks, "not to Nathan and me, a happily married couple." But the shock of it never quite prevents Rose from acting like a lady. She doesn't smoke, stalk, swear or speak in anything but complete sentences, and she is soon rewarded by the reappearance of an old boyfriend, a glamorous American travel writer named Hal, whom she met as an Oxford undergraduate and from whom she parted after miscarrying his child. In the glow of that old flame, Rose becomes a kind of ministering angel to those around her: her mother, her elderly neighbor, her lovesick children, even her ex-husband, who comes wandering by in a daze of penitence. "You get your own back," Rose declares, "by believing that, yes, despite everything you can live as well, perhaps better." It is the revenge of the saints: Rose outwits the other woman simply by being a superior human being.
All well and good, but I couldn't help warming myself on the memory of Fay Weldon's savagely funny The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, in which the displaced wife sets out, in clearly demarcated steps, to destroy the woman who replaced her. Not a very moral course, to be sure, but Weldon's prose, even in its quietest moments, crackles with urgency, which is why you would follow her characters to the deepest circles of hell. Buchan's style, by contrast, is every bit as tailored and hemmed as her heroine. She may lose her grip a bit in the swoony romantic flashbacks ("I am bathed in you," the young Rose murmurs to her lover), but by and large she sets an immaculate table, wiped clean of surprise and genuine insight.
All the stranger, then, to learn that Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman (at least according to its jacket copy) has been a major bestseller in England. Explanation #1: British readers are starved for intelligence on the emotional lives of fortysomething women. Explanation #2: British readers are casting about for a new role for Francesca Annis (who starred several years ago as a middle-aged married woman with a much younger lover in the PBS miniseries "Reckless").
Reading the book from this side of the Atlantic, I found myself bored and a little baffled. What was I to make of Hal, the dreamboat American who appears to be a cross between Edward Abbey and Bill Clinton? (Although I don't think that, even after a few months at Oxford, Clinton would have used phrases like "big companies don't care a toss" and "I'll meet you there on the Thursday." Nor would he have romanced a jeune fille in the Amazonian jungle with the words "Tarzan loves Jane.") And, being the brown thumb I am, I just couldn't warm to the author's exhaustively vegetative imagery. Bad enough, surely, that the heroine is named Rose -- forever opening the dewy petals of her heart. Must she also have a romantic rival named Minty, a daughter named Poppy and, for good measure, a cat named Parsley? Not to mention a garden, overgrown with metaphor: "The soil was clogged and sour, the plants sullen . . . The lilac blossom was heavy and abandoned-looking. . . . How had I missed the rot on the Iceberg rose?"
These genteel vines of prose are only too appropriate, for Revenge of a Middle-Aged Woman is the kind of book best read in an English garden on a wrought-iron bench under a trellis of honeysuckle. It makes unruly emotions as digestible as the tea sandwiches next to your elbow. It is chamomile literature: Steep and serve. *
Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer.