"Laura could hear the conversation to come . . . clearly," writes Ellen Feldman in her new novel. "She'd hurl accusations. He'd counter with questions. She'd call him names. He'd suffer the injustice in silence. She'd hang up, still angry, ashamed, and looking for a meaningless object to smash."
"Conjugal Rites," the story of a New York City divorce lawyer struggling with her own unsettled life, depicts a universe of contemporary people imprisoned in relationships and burdened by separations that are all too familiar.
Feldman's protagonist is Emily Brandt, who talks tough with her romantically crippled clients -- including her two sisters and an ex-husband -- but is incapable of telling her overpossessive lover that his act is wearing thin. Laura, Emily's oldest sister, is wafting through an unwelcomed divorce after 17 years of marriage. Hallie, the other sister, is trapped in a marriage with a good provider who is having an affair with his computer.
The novel is rich with characterizations of sisterly warmth and wrath, as well as cleverly wicked observations of life in Manhattan's fast lane. Unfortunately, this particular urban theme is getting a bit tired, with writers like Ann Beattie and Jay McInerney using New York's post-'60s yuppie culture as their literary lifeblood.
Feldman has a good ear for dialogue and a good feel for humor, artfully using these tools to represent disconcerting relationships. Consider the scene in which a divorced man leaves his 5-year-old daughter with his lover for the day.
The child demands peanut butter and jelly. The lover dutifully makes a sandwich. "I don't want it," the child says, after staring at it for half an hour.
"But you said you wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," the lover snaps back.
"The way Mommy makes it," the child announces.
The mating of lover and weekend child is to the '80s what the in-law problem was to the '50s, and Feldman explores the confrontation masterfully.
Again, in a delicious parody of modern marriage suffocating under the weight of modern problems, Feldman describes Hallie's boredom with her tedious husband.
"Daniel's voice awakened her," she writes. "He was talking in his sleep, and now the words came out in anguish rather than pleasure. They were mumbled but Hallie knew them by heart. The dream haunted Daniel's sleep the way nightmares of battle were said to trouble men home from war. 'The system's down,' he moaned. 'The system's down.' "
Humor is Feldman's strength. But when she strains to convey pathos or intensity, she falls short of her mark and begins to sound like a preview for a film about group therapy.
Feldman's 1982 novel, "a.k.a. Katherine Walden" (her first published under her own name), is also about relationships in New York -- but it is far superior in its straightforward writing and character development. There is something alive about Katherine Walden. You feel her confusion when her lover moves out and her pain when a good friend attempts suicide. You relive her self-doubts and self-flagellations.
By contrast, Emily in "Conjugal Rites" is a blank page, and the more you try to make her out, the more unsatisfying the effort becomes. Feldman also seems to be trying a little too hard for flowery prose effects, and the resulting sloppy images and forced metaphors get in the way of understanding.
She likens envy, for instance, to grains of sand "small and fine . . . that managed to find their way between the pages no matter how careful she was." Envy may be a lot of things, but it is rarely small and fine. Also, after describing a phone call in which a sister asks Emily for some professional advice, Feldman has Emily think: "In this decade you no more refused a woman's demand to pick your brain than in the last you declined a man's to use your body." Huh?
At her best, Ellen Feldman takes you inside her characters' heads, skillfully presenting their feelings and words. Yet in the end, "Conjugal Rites" does not overcome the cliche's and painful overwriting. A good story writes itself; when the writer intrudes with shallow analysis and Harlequin triteness, it can only diminish the quality of the work.