By Courtney Maum
336 pp. $25.99
Courtney Maum’s first novel, “I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You,” is a publicist’s dream. Its snappy title promises ironic humor, and it leaves one wondering if the “I” will end up with the “you.” The terrific cover calls to mind the romance of a European holiday. The blurbs, from critically lauded writers, speak to the novel’s wit and insight. And the elevator pitch is ready-made: 30-something British artist has affair in Paris with American woman, but decides to return to French wife. It offers a moral quandary, a love triangle and a Franco-British-American conflict. Here we have the literary beach read — a book that pleases people who read two books a month and people who read two books a year.
The situation is timeworn and irresistible. The settings — the streets, art galleries and homes of mostly rich Parisians and Londoners, plus the French and English countryside — are idyllic escapes, lushly drawn. Maum convincingly inhabits the thoughts of her protagonist, Richard Haddon, as he stumbles through his crisis, keenly portraying the emotional and physical frustrations that lead him to stray.
About his mistress, Richard thinks, “My life had been illuminated by Lisa, made more vivid by her presence. I couldn’t imagine letting go — really letting go of her — without losing a rekindled sense of self.” About his wife and his life with their young daughter: “I loved Anne-Laure. And I needed her. Everything, from the herd of midseason coats crowded in the mudroom to the glitter-pencil penguin drawings curling up beneath the magnets on our refrigerator door, every object in our household was part of our ongoing tale.”
The first third of the novel is anchored by a core dilemma, nuanced characterization and a smart send-up of the international art scene. But then the focus abruptly switches to a contrived plot involving one of Richard’s paintings. As Maum delves into this narrative involving the sale of a favorite work to a mysterious buyer — who happens to have the same name as the man Lisa has taken up with — I couldn’t help but feel as if a screenwriter of broad comedies had hijacked 70 pages of the book.
The buyer, known only as “Dave,” turns out to be one half of an over-the-top New Age couple whose antics make much of the middle third of the novel seem farcical. “We’re completers of the circle,” Dave says of himself and his partner, Dan. “Like our snake god, we, too, try to be the belt around the world that keeps it from bursting apart.” He sends off Richard with a talisman, Ngendo, described as “some kind of cross between an African fertility sculpture, license-plate art, and a totem pole.” Sure, it’s funny, but it’s completely out of context. Even floppy-haired Richard, in his bumbling attempt to win back his wife, starts to seem like Hugh Grant. Lovelorn, he begins a new installation, WarWash, an artistic comment on the coming war with Iraq that invites the public to participate “in an absurd domestic act: the washing of things in oil.”
Down the stretch, Maum returns to her art, too. She is abundantly gifted — funny, open-hearted, adept at bringing global issues into the personal sphere. Though her novel is an uneven marriage of the literary and the popular, she is certainly capable of making the relationship work and eventually creating that rare thing: a book for everyone.
Shreve’s fourth novel, “The End of the Book,” was published in February.