"How He Saved Her" is the familiar story of the breakup of a marriage with a twist: the catalyst encouraging the heroine, Nora Ingarden, to leave her husband is the Devil himself.
Ellen Schwamm skillfully depicts the spiritual poverty of New York's upper class as she also explores, with mixed results, the character and force of that eternally dramatic and amorphous hero who in this incarnation compels Nora to examine her life with ruthless honesty and finally choose a better one. If John Cheever and Goethe conspired to write a late 20th-century novel with a feminist perspective, "How He Saved Her" might be it.
One sees the emptiness of Nora's life from the moment the story begins on her 40th birthday, as her family gathers to celebrate. Only her children give her pleasure. Her brother is ineffective and loquacious, her parents superficial, her husband Ned insensitive. Ned gives "the impression of a profound solidity of mind, body, and purpose," but in fact the solidity is rigidity.
Into this gathering comes Lautner, a man who fascinates Nora because he is candid, he hints at danger, and "the way in which he had no expectations touched something in Nora and made her feel less lonely." She becomes obsessed with him, and he appears to her in various places, revealing himself as the Devil and offering her "the gift of being open about what you will. And what you are."
In turn she must become an honest woman, one who is able to give up the falseness of her marriage even at the price of the protection it affords. "How He Saved Her" follows Nora through the last painful day of her moneyed existence, as she provokes her husband's clients and withdraws from her friends. Schwamm creates a world of characters who are stylish, whether frivolous or earnest, narrow despite their intellectual pretensions and obviously pleased with themselves.
Lautner fits neatly into this world, and is seen frequently in the company of European-born intellectuals known for their flair or independence. He is a contemporary Devil, mobile, relentlessly honest, immensely powerful, and at the same time there are sadness and tiredness in his eyes.
To Nora he is "that unfathomable originality embodied in a living man," and "a creature utterly unlike any other, one who'd never had a childhood, who would never know age or failing powers, for whom there were no seasons, not even in the mind, only the climate of self and direness of falling . . ."
Make no mistake, he is not just a symbol, but meant to be a flesh-and-blood Devil, so to speak, within the context of the story. Like medieval monsters such as Grendel, however, being what he is necessarily carries with it allegorical weight. He is both power and naked human aspiration, and as such holds out to Nora, a woman, what she feels she lacks and longs for. Lautner is not only the embodiment of her pains and need, summoned by her mind, he is also a kind of epitome of maleness because she sees beauty and power in masculine terms:
"Her loyalties were all towards women, but the body of her respect . . . her bodily and moral self, were . . . in the service of men . . . I doubt she can change this. Her God is male."
"How He Saved Her" is nonetheless a novel of liberation, feminist in its perspective and sentiments, the story of a woman reforming her own life even if, curiously, in relation to a male power. Although Schwamm writes intelligently and vividly, with insight into character, the ground she covers is not new, and perhaps to make her story more than ordinary she added the Devil, a risk at best. He cannot help seeming a literary invention, artificial at times, as when "the soles of his shoes, hitting the cobblestones, made the hard, thudding sound of hoofs" across the New Jersey mall where he meets Nora to make love.
The story is, in fact, most compelling when Lautner is most human; the first 70 pages, before he reveals himself as the Devil, are the most intriguing. And, although much of the writing is direct and well crafted, the language describing physical and intellectual passion can also be literary and self-conscious. But it is the risk Schwamm takes because at heart her subject is neither marriage nor the Devil, but passion--the intensity of body and spirit required to give birth to anything worthwhile, including an altered self.