In this impressive first novel, Miriam Finkelstein sketches a witty, insightful story about the revitalization of a flagging marriage. Best of all, she gives us a husband and wife who are equally to blame instead of casting a suffering princess against an insensitive tyrant who bellows if she leaves the house without first washing the dishes.
"Domestic Affairs" centers on New Yorkers Laura and Tom Stone, who after 11 years of marriage are running straight for divorce without reading the road signs. Harried by work and parenthood, they now take each other for granted.
Fortunately, Laura veers off course. This stiflingly hot and sticky summer she chooses to stay home in Manhattan while her children romp at Camp Tumbleweed and her husband reluctantly attends his annual chemists' convention in Geneva alone.
Although Tom suspects adultery, Laura's motive isn't that dark: She wants to see if she can "propel herself from one day to the next without the constant push of other people's needs."
Laura works part-time as a free-lance book editor, but views herself primarily as a housewife made dull and timid by her patterns--a woman whose life is in need of revision. On her own, Laura feels "the possibility of the emergence of a new personality. Or the reemerging of several old ones. In any case, she was tired of the person she knew so well, the competent, organized woman who made lists."
Alone in Switzerland, Tom does not know what to do with his dirty laundry or free time. Meanwhile, Laura--who is alternately frightened and exhilarated by independence--quakes at the thought of riding a subway to a friend's art show opening in Soho. She wishes Tom were home to drive her there, because she doesn't know how to operate a car. Given time apart, the Stones think about their relationship. They discover that instead of cultivating each other as lovers and best friends, they unwittingly have been reducing each other to functionaries.
Laura's experiences in overcoming her fear of the subway system (she becomes a "subway freak" who invents destinations so she can take the trains everywhere and spends entire days underground) best illustrates one of the novel's main points: the need for independence. It is a graphic example--on the most literal level--of the self-propulsion Laura seeks, because lack of access to or inability to use rapid transportation is an invisible form of bondage in our highly mobile society.
While that message is clear, others sometimes are frustratingly foggy. Despite Laura's good intentions, for example, sexual trysts arise. That is understandable plotting. But one of the novel's thinnest passages concerns Laura's seduction by another woman. Although tastefully written, the scene is not believable because Laura, who we've been led to believe is happy with heterosexuality and who has never before made love to anyone but Tom, accepts her lesbian initiation too easily. One might expect more introspection and crisis of identity from a woman whose experiences have been so limited.
To borrow a phrase from feminist essayist Jane O'Reilly, "heavy lifting" of emotions isn't the novel's high point. Nor is its cast of supporting characters, who, unlike Tom and Laura, don't strike me as having enough dimension. Their children, in particular, are not as real, bratty and lovable as the ones who tug so needily at the unhappy housewife in Rita Kashner's "Bed Rest," a deeper, more moving novel.
It is difficult to achieve a happy compromise between under- and overwriting. Perhaps in the future Finkelstein will manage to deepen her fiction without losing its refreshing simplicity, lean prose and speedy pace.