Hannah Bart, the heroine of Susan Cheever's second novel, works in publishing and gets to attend book parties with literary celebrities. She understands, however, that sharing the canapes doesn't mean sharing the glamour. There are many young women like her in the business, and from time to time they, like Hannah, begin affairs with urbane, older publishing executives met over wine and cheese.
Hannah's reluctance to count for long on the attentions of Sam Noble, who has descended from on high to take her as his mistress, is one way of playing the game, the way to avoid being hurt too badly.
Not surprisingly, Hannah's analyst tells her she "should have more self-confidence," but Hannah knows that she can enjoy Sam more because she expects nothing. That's a useful habit -- to hope for nothing -- and paradoxically it often works extremely well as a method of advancement, particularly in one's romantic involvements. Pragmatic diffidence, it might be called, not to be confused with coyness or playing hard to get. Such a position usually comes with age and experience: Hannah is 32 and divorced.
The book begins as Hannah is flying to Ireland to join Sam for a vacation. Oddly, because she had been so undemanding for herself, Hannah has convinced Sam to invite his son, Travis, to meet them. Sam and Travis have been on poor terms for a number of years; they have spent little time together and are wary of each other. Sam is exasperated by his son's flaws while Travis, on his side, resents his father's high-gloss perfection.
Hannah, herself from a close and loving family, for some reason feels a need to change the Noble status quo. Perhaps it is because if she succeeds she will feel as if she has made herself indispensable.
Cheever approaches the coming together of this ill-matched triangle with a sense of portentous anticipation that the reader is hard put to share. It is fun to get to know Hannah, whether she is smoking an illicit cigarette in the bathroom of the plane or struggling for harmony between her clothes and her body, worried about her hips and a small roll of fat. She is careful and perceptive yet given to sudden mood swings, as her intelligence plays devil's advocate to her happiness.
Hannah is a real woman come alive on these pages. Both her doubts and her widecracks ring true. But Sam and Travis added to Hannah make for a human equation that has less verisimilitude. Plunked down into the misty Irish countryside, the three of them are mildly interesting but hardly absorbing, not even to each other. In fact, the self absorption of each might be considered the major obstacle to their achieving a "happy family" unity.
Complications are rife. Hannah, who has set the reunion into motion, finds herself jealous of the attention that is being diverted from her to Travis. Travis is both attracted to and repelled by Hannah, and he is not sure what his father wants from him, or vice versa. Anger is the only fuel he is used to running on. Meanwhile, Sam is experiencing emotions long rusty inside of him; stirrings of paternal love and actual romantic attachment are confusing him, causing him unexpected twinges of vulnerability.
Disoriented because, after all, they are far from home, Hannah, Sam and Travis become their worst selves magnified. At this point, unhappily, Cheever dips into the treasury of daytime soap opera. What follows, including an epilogue, seems like prosthetic plot devices, artificially attached.
"A Handsome Man" might just as well be called "A Handsome Country," for Ireland with its green hedgerows and "narrow stone bridges over brooks and bogs" casts its net over the story, covering the fiction with an aura of travelogue. Doesn't Cheever know that Ireland is to novels what children and dogs are to stage actors? Her prose, when it is good ("she dances the horizontal choreography of insomnia"), is seductive and tightly phrased, but it is not always strong enough to fight off the scene-stealing proclivities of things Irish.
Though obviously preoccupied with death -- she has Hannah speculate upon it frequently -- Cheever most emphatically comes down on the side of the life force. Hannah, Sam and Travis are all survivors; maybe even, at another time, their effects on one another will be different. And that may be the problem with "A Handsome Man": having zeroed in on her characters, especially the appealing Hannah, Cheever simply may have misjudged at what intersection their fates would most engage us.