Carolyn Slaughter has a real flair for the perverse, especially when it comes to relationships. Her early works braved such indelicacies as incest and Mary Magdalene's love affairs. Then, in 1984, she knocked the "My Fair Lady" right out of the Pygmalion obsession with her well-acclaimed and chilling novel, "The Banquet." This latest look at the macabre, "A Perfect Woman," breathes new life into the wearied love triangle.
The scenario is harmless enough: Humphrey spends the first part of his life poor and an orphan, then he meets Beth, and together they establish both a storybook home life, with three daughters and a lovely garden out back, and a fortune from packing and selling frozen foods.
When the story begins, the vigorous Humphrey, impatient with success and encroaching middle age, has turned from his hobby of horticulture to an affair with a builder named Sylvie. Not that he doesn't continue to worship his wife, but as he sees it, "If you'd found something wonderful that worked, you could do it again; if you were honest and straight you could repeat any success." After all, two in the hand are better than one in the hand.
Beth sympathizes with her husband's insatiable hungers and immense fear of stagnation. When Humphrey openly frets about the more demanding Sylvie, Beth softly says, "Go and see her now, Humphrey . . . or you'll only be unhappy," yet even as she speaks, "her pliancy to all his needs" seems to "rise up and choke her." It's a guileless generosity that Humphrey strangely seems to expect from her. Tall, elegant and well bred, with dark hair swept off her smooth brow, Beth is like a sublime mix of serene Easter lilies and warm gingerbread.
Sylvie, on the other hand, is a woman of Humphrey's own stamp: energetic, relentless and superbly ambitious. She can't cook, scorns nurturing and offers physical favors over the phone, all of which Humphrey finds remarkably sexy. Sylvie drops her soot-coated coveralls on the floor to reveal the muscular limbs of a boy and the luxuriant breasts of a pornographic dream. "She was tough as an old boot, and then, sometimes, so very frail. He loved the contradictions: she was like a wave breaking hard and loud on shingle but ending with a sob."
At least at first, both women feel that half of Humphrey is better than no Humphrey at all. Beth forces herself to remember the importance of keeping everybody happy, while Sylvie focuses on the independence his "bigamy" gives her. But Humphrey's magnanimous egotism turns from endearing to enraging as he pushes the limits of perfection (and decency) too far. Both women, stung by inescapable jealousy, lose their composure.
Sylvie begins the battle rather unsubtly by breaking into Beth's home and smashing her heirloom china. Beth desperately tries to maintain her self-possession but, nonetheless, her lucidity slowly shatters over the ensuing weeks. Slaughter beautifully details the breakdown of Beth's inner threads, with even the language of the novel waxing and waning according to her emotional state.
In fact, the novel and its title clearly belong to Beth. The narrative, which is shared by all, begins and ends with her as does the action, and it is upon Beth that all the characters, even Sylvie, ultimately depend. Slaughter's infectious belief in Beth's perfection is what keeps the novel from being humdrum. The reader is swept into the warmth of her nest along with her daughters' motley punk friends and the angry homeless boy she adopts. One has to worship her; she is absolutely beautiful.
Unfortunately, the portraits of Humphrey and Sylvie pale in comparison. Humphrey's character, to be fair, does possess a certain cohesion, with frequent allusions to garden goods that punctuate his obsession with productivity and staying young. He even habitually crawls up into a favorite tree to do his deepest thinking. He just doesn't come off as very sexy. Sylvie, on the other hand, is little more than a caricature of a new type of modern woman. What kind of person is she? Supposedly more passionate than Beth, she comes off as cold, androgynous and selfish.
Slaughter often resorts to telling instead of showing in Humphrey's and Sylvie's cases, and their narration lacks distinction. All in all, the continual change of narrator tends to be disconcerting. Of course, seeing Beth through the eyes of her daughters, her rival and her husband does help color her character. The problem is that one ends up more interested in the thoughts of her wayward daughters than those of her egocentric husband.
By so clearly tipping her book in Beth's favor, Slaughter has pointed up some strong ideas about what makes for perfection in women and the lack of it in some men. Thanks to her unusual and eloquent grasp of people and their relationships, she has also managed to take a dime-store topic and turn it into literature. Although still a rainy-evening sort of novel, "A Perfect Woman" is both enjoyable and often poetic, and would make a great gift to a girlfriend languishing over a jerk.