At the outset, Annette Williams Jaffee assures the proper audience for her first novel, "Adult Education," cleverly warning male readers away. There'll be no soft focus, no airbrush. She launches into details about which women are matter-of-fact and men notoriously squeamish: Becca's water breaks, her breasts leak. Becca behaves, for the most part, the way women do when men aren't watching.
When Becca and Ulli first come together, they are both pregnant, "like two Marimekko pumpkins," and enrolled in an adult education course in pre-Columbian art. They meet more than a year later in a photography class:
"'Again?' Ulli tapped Becca's ripe stomach, like a melon, with one manicured finger.
"'I figured, since I was into it, the equipment and everything. . .' Becca was forever apologizing for her fertility. 'And you?'
"'I am finished,' said Ulli.
"Probably all the wrong people have all the children, thought Becca, remembering her messy kitchen. She imagined Ulli's life as a spice cabinet, all the pieces sorted neatly into the right shaped and labeled plastic boxes."
The whole book is forecast here. It is, wisely, Becca's book, full of Becca's fervent and funny and somehow damp observations:
"Becca lay on her bed, listening for the rattling wheels that signaled feeding time at the zoo, preceded by a nurse with a mammoth glass of juice to help her lactate. Becca had not opted for rooming-in this time.
"'Rooming-in? But we hardly know each other,' she had told the disapproving nurse."
Becca, once a dance major at Bennington, has by marrying left "real" life behind. "Oh, Ulli," she confesses, "I wasn't meant to be buried in the kitchen, I was meant to fly, to dance!" She flashes back to a childhood shaped by Grandpops, vaudevillian turned car dealer. She yearns after what seem never-to-be-consummated affairs. Becca is trapped -- she even wanders the supermarket aisles "like a prisoner at Knossos." Becca is as full of the gimmies as her kids.
Ulli, former Avedon model and the daughter of a Swedish contess, is, in sharp contrast, content. When she asks, "Becca, why can't you just be happy?" she means it. Ulli compares the neighborhood children at Halloween to a Breughel. Becca looks at the same scene and sees Bosch.
Ulli's cool, however, never freezes into condescension. She and Becca are real friends, best friends. Summering at Cape Cod apart from their husbands (Ulli's John, a TV personality, and Becca's Gerry, a philandering sociologist), their lives are rhythmic, easy. Even Becca achieves tranquility and sees this time as "a kind of honeymoon." She tells Ulli, "Look how happy we've been together without the men. Then they come with their big feet and big plans and big appetites." Sure enough, John and Gerry arrive and the interlude is broken. Even the children, who had partaken of their mothers' calm, are tainted, "whiney . . . banished upstairs."
Jaffee is careful not to place men in situations that strike us as extraordinary, but in those that are all too familiar. We learn with Becca, for instance, that Gerry will "keep trying" for a boy after the birth of their two daughters. When Becca reminds him of his commitment to zero population, Gerry says, "They don't mean people like us."
The mood of the book darkens with subsequent events, but not what the dust jacket calls, accurately, Becca's "ruthlessly comic" vision. Because of this vision, Jaffee is able to pull of what few novelists would have attempted: a down-swing that might otherwise have seemed to abrupt. w
Gerry leaves Becca and Ulli grows ill and John is only too ready to substitute one wife for another. After an extravagant show of grief at the hospital where Ulli lies, Becca is dedated, dumped into her own bed. Gerry and John are at the foot of it, and Becca makes us laugh at them: "The two men look away, tap their big feet, drink some cognac, light cigarettes and pipes, embarrassed for each other by her behavior. Each blushes for the other, to think she had belonged to him."
Author Jaffee deals big blows, but always in small scenes. Nothing is inconsequential. The meaning of a given scene never eludes us either, because Jaffee knows exactly which details to record. Still, she never lingers, never gloats. The book clips right along, though it covers, and deftly, a long time span.
And though "Adult Education" posits men as the enemy, Jaffee doesn't wield a cleaver, a la Marilyn French. Instead, she jabs -- firmly, effectively. With a spiffy, new Swiss Army knife, Becca might say -- after neatly wiping peanut butter off the blade.