About 100 pages into Sadie Jones’s new novel,“Fallout,” I was worried I wouldn’t have anything to sink my teeth into. Jones expertly moves things along in this tale of the 1970s London theater world. Dialogue snaps and crackles, emotional moments shimmer briefly and then give way easily to the next plot point. We go from adolescence to young adulthood quickly, and from love to affair to heartbreak to love again. It seemed at times like melodramatic fluff: pleasurable enough, appealing to those who like their recent historical fiction with a healthy dose of love triangles. “Where’s the bite to this book?” I wondered. Well, be careful what you wish for.
There are four main characters in this tale of star-crossed lovers: Nina, Luke, Leigh and Paul. Nina and Luke first cross paths as children in a museum, although they never actually meet that day. Nina grows up the unwanted daughter of a failed actress who is all glamour and bad role modeling. Early on, her mother tells her, “Men desire women, and can create them — even homosexual men. Women hairdressers have no idea at all. Very often they’re jealous and want you to look ordinary.” Nina, beautiful, vaguely anorexic, eventually becomes an actress herself, her mother guiding the way and introducing her to Tony, a manipulative gay theater producer who can make Nina’s career. They eventually, absurdly, marry.
In Nottingham, Luke’s French mother lives in an insane asylum, where he dutifully visits her every week. His father is a quiet Polish alcoholic, whose needs Luke tends to until finishinghis schooling. But in his heart, Luke is a playwright, a secret genius far from the London theater world, waiting for his big break. He gets it when he meets Paul and Leigh one rainy night when they are seeking directions. Luke wants to cling to them, as they represent a more sophisticated world that he desperately would like to know: “What could he do? Invite them back . . . for a vodka with his dad? Rustle up a roast dinner and seduce them both into staying in Seston forever?” The three later move in together when Luke shows up in London, desperate to break out of his prison.
Leigh, a feminist and aspiring playwright, is ostensibly the real heroine of the story, though Luke gets most of the attention. She is saddened by Luke, who will never love her the way she loves him, and she must bear witness to his many affairs. “She was invaded,” Jones writes. “Undone. And it was exactly as she had feared; it was like falling. A lurching tumble into the dark.”
There is lots of coupling and uncoupling, and some speechifying about the radical theater world and feminism. There are memorable moments — the best being the opening night of Luke’s first play, when we are perfectly teased as to whether it will be a success.
But the meat of this book, if one can call it that, is the rape scenes that take place between Tony, the gay producer, and his wife, Nina, after he discovers she has been straying outside their complex marriage. He has long been molding her, watching her food intake so she’ll be thin and without curves, dressing her up in masculine fashion. But now, as punishment for her infidelity, he “put himself into the virgin part of her that truly fascinated him; the shock and the pain of it made her scream.” Later, Nina tells her mother, “I think that he hates me. He hates women. He hates sex but he does it anyway to — I don’t know — to make me low or hurt me.” During a later rape, when he slaps her around until she submits, she describes him as using her “like a boy.”
That a gay man would try to transform a woman into a boy and then inflict sexual violence in this way is unlikely. At worst, it’s a homophobic portrayal, but at the very least, it suggests that the author does not understand gay men. More troubling, by the end of the book, Nina has decided that she likes this treatment. Perhaps Nina is actually coming into her own sexually, a truly masochistic woman emerging, although this seems unbelievable, as she is miserable as the book concludes.
Another possibility is that she’s been broken and re-created by this woman-hating gay man and sentenced to a life of submission. I found this entire storyline loathsome and unnecessary. Why did this character need to be gay to dominate her? For the melodrama? To give a prickly spine to an otherwise pleasant book? If we removed Nina entirely, the novel would be a fun read, a charming love triangle, rich with period detail. But with Nina and Tony in the mix, “Fallout” feels spiritually bankrupt.
Attenberg’s most recent book is “The Middlesteins,” and her new novel, “Saint Mazie,” will be published next year.
By Sadie Jones
Harper. 405 pp. $25.99