WHAT DO YOU DO ALL DAY?
By Amy Scheibe
St. Martin's. 308 pp. $21.95
SLEEP WITH ME
By Joanna Briscoe
306 pp. $23.95
THE MERCY OF THIN AIR
By Ronlyn Domingue
Atria. 310 pp. $24
Novels about marriage and family life used to fall into the slightly insulting category of "domestic fiction." Judging by some of the novels written today, what might once have been considered domestic is now in no way domesticated. Events that take place within the home and, specifically, within a marriage can be some combination of surprising, disturbing, sexy, moving or funny.
Amy Scheibe's novel What Do You Do All Day? falls mostly into the funny category, and pungently so. Scheibe takes on the question of what happens to highly educated, affluent, formerly cool urban women when they stop working in order to raise their children. When Thom goes off on a three-month business trip to Singapore, his wife, Jennifer, is stranded with their son, Max, and their precocious daughter, Georgia. In the circumscribed universe of this book, the husband-wife dyad gets second billing, edged out by the dominant relationship between mother and child. The political concerns at the heart of this novel -- which include the conflict between motherhood and ambition -- are in evidence. But like a mother who deftly mixes her kid's amoxicillin with chocolate pudding, Scheibe laces What Do You Do All Day? with enough wit to make even the shrewdest readers feel they're not reading an "issues" novel: " 'Up up up' comes from Max's room, where he has finished his 'power nap.' He sleeps like an SAT problem: six hours a night in two three-hour shifts, with two thirty-minute naps spaced four hours apart during the day."
Scheibe's knowing observations about all-consuming, alpha motherhood add a piquancy to a landscape that will be highly familiar to readers who find themselves at the weird juncture where Jimmy Choo meets Fisher-Price.
The period before parenthood begins might seem to offer a certain peacefulness. Not so in Joanna Briscoe's Sleep With Me. After Richard and Lelia meet a plain and (at least at first) unmemorable woman named Sylvie, she stealthily and steadfastly creeps into the couple's private space. Sylvie becomes fascinated with Lelia's pregnancy, and the reader can tell that something is not right with this interloper long before the characters in the novel do. When the repellent, pregnancy-in-jeopardy finale occurs, we've been expecting it for a long time, even if no one else has.
Briscoe alternates between Richard's and Lelia's points of view, a device that is not entirely successful since the sensibility of the writing never really shifts. The book is a pas de deux of information revealed and concealed, principally concerning an increasing flirtation between Richard and the surprisingly erotic Sylvie, but later also including Lelia's secret relationship with Sylvie as well.
The author has a good deal to say about marriage, some of it disparaging: "This, then, I realised, was what crap marriages were composed of. All those snapping couples who seemed to hate each other; pensioners silently reading over hotel meals; couples seething with a decade of resentments, their squabbling pale-faced kids in tow." Briscoe is a controlled and elegant writer, and, at least until the freak-out ending that begs for comparison with movies such as "Fatal Attraction," Sylvie is an inspired character.
Character itself is the focus of Ronlyn Domingue's The Mercy of Thin Air, which, like Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, employs a dead narrator to comment on the activities of the living. But Domingue's Razi Nolan is a more stylized creature than Sebold's murdered Susie Salmon. She is also, at times, less finely drawn, which may be because the author already has enough to do: She's set herself the complicated task of telling the story of Razi's unfinished relationship with a young man named Andrew, as well as that of a contemporary couple, Amy and Scott, whose house Razi haunts 70 years after her own death.
Because this is essentially a ghost story, Domingue loads up on atmosphere. She also provides an original and compelling plotline about certain clandestine all-female parties held in the 1920s at which young women are educated about contraception and sexual awareness: "Diaphragms are similar to pessaries but have a spring hinge that folds so they can be properly placed. They are not yet readily available here. You must be fitted by a doctor and taught to use them. If you haven't married yet, get a fake wedding ring. Most doctors won't tell you a thing if you don't have a husband."
Blending the practical matters of marriage with the sentimental, Domingue has fashioned an emotionally satisfying story of love and longing. Her wistful novel bears little resemblance to the environment of darkness and obsession that infuses Briscoe's book or the fast-talking savvy of Scheibe's, but all three novels set their sights on the world that exists inside a home and inside a relationship, leaving out much of the vast space that surrounds it. And each, in its own way, makes the case that what happens to people in the confines of their own lives is enough to sustain a story until the end. *
Meg Wolitzer's recent novels include "The Position" and "The Wife."