In these days of intense feminist literary activism it takes no small amount of chutzpah for a male author to write a first-person narrative in a female voice. This is what James D. Houston has done in "Love Life," and to my mind he has done it very well, it being the case that mine is of course a man's mind. Though at first the reader may be skeptical about his narrator's authenticity, Houston soon makes her so completely believable that doubts vanish and her story proceeds at its own considerable momentum.
It is the story of Grover and Holly Doyle, who have been married for 8 1/2 years and suddenly find the marriage in deep trouble. Holly accidentally discovers evidence that Grover may be having an affair, and though she desperately hopes her suspicions to be unfounded -- "I wanted to trust him, after all. I wanted trust to count for something in the world" -- she soon learns that he is indeed guilty. In response to her anger and anguish, all Grover can come up with is lame rationalization couched in the language of pop psychology:
"Why can't we talk about this in a normal voice? If you love me and care about me, you'll try to understand what I am getting at. I have met someone who happens to be very important to me. That doesn't mean you are any less important. No one person can be everything to another person. You know this is true. Different people call out different things. Sometimes you have to surrender to a situation, you have to give yourself completely in order to learn from it and grow from it."
But Holly is having none of that. Instead, she walks out. Egged on by a compassionate but hard-boiled friend, she goes to the San Francisco airport and impulsively takes a plane to New York. There she intends to meet the man with whom she had her own affair some years before, hoping that he might help bring her out of "a blur of disorder and confusion and time wasted and time lost." Things don't quite work out as planned, but the trip east proves revealing in other ways, so when Holly returns to California it is with a heightened determination to see things through to some clear conclusion with which she can live.
When she comes home, though, she discovers that life doesn't lend itself to such clear or easy resolutions. Instead, even though she and Grover are at swords' points, she is immersed almost immediately in the petty details of domesticity, what she thinks of as "the Unidentified Flying Objects of day-to-day family life" -- the distractions that keep husbands and wives from talking to each other, the outside temptations that lure them into the orbits of other lovers. She finds that she still fears "the return of emptiness, a sense of something missing at the very center of my life, our life, something gone that might never be replaced."
Eventually, after no small amount of struggle and drama, she finds that this center is not exactly gone, but that it has been relocated in different form. The crisis through which she and Grover pass leaves neither of them unscathed or unchanged; among other things, it forces Grover to confront his reluctance to address his emotions directly and it makes Holly acknowledge that throughout her life she has sought to solve problems or doubts by running away from them -- as in the flight to New York -- instead of meeting them head-on.
This may sound like the stuff of yet another "divorce novel," as the genre seems to be known, but there is much more to "Love Life" than that. For starters, Holly and Grover are not self-centered urbanites; they're bright but rather ordinary people, scraping by in unprepossessing ways and in unglamorous surroundings. They're ordinary but Houston makes them interesting, because they talk and think in ways that we immediately recognize as authentic; toward the end of the novel they have a long nocturnal conversation that is positively lacerating precisely because it is so painfully, brutally true to life.
That, in fact, can be said of everything in "Love Life": It has the firm stamp of reality. Nothing that any of its characters do seems staged or contrived; they do it because this is the way people actually behave, the way they really react to uncertainty and adversity. Not many novels get so close to common experience these days, which is all the more reason to praise what Houston has accomplished in this very good book.