By now, it should be beneath notice when a man writes a novel whose main characters are women. But here we are, in 2016, and women’s stories are still generally the province of female authors and readers.
So it’s a pleasure to see Stuart Nadler, in his second novel, take on the stories of a 70-year-old woman and her daughter and granddaughter — and do so seriously, empathetically and respectfully.
Nadler’s first novel, “Wise Men,” was a family story of a father and son. Here in “The Inseparables,” he turns his attention to the female side of a different family, finding all three generations of women at points of crisis.
Henrietta lost her husband almost a year ago, leaving her in such dire financial straits that she has, after 40 years, allowed the publication of a new edition of her cult classic novel called “The Inseparables.” A former women’s studies teacher, Henrietta had intended her book to be a “Fear of Flying” feminist statement, demonstrating the power of women’s sexuality and shattering the patriarchy. Unfortunately, “cheery housewives” and lecherous men embraced it, while from the literary and feminist establishments, “the repudiation was endless.” She has tried to ignore its existence and her own attendant semi-celebrity, but the book’s republication is forcing her to contend with her shame.
Her daughter, Oona, a successful orthopedic trauma surgeon, has been living with Henrietta after separating from her husband, Spencer, a former lawyer turned stay-at-home-dad and pothead. She suspects that Spencer’s decision to leave his career, ostensibly because he was missing out on time with their daughter, was what broke their marriage. Their reliance on her income had forced her to work more while “her money had slowly, year by year, driven him mad.” Now nominally single, Oona is preoccupied with an ill-considered affair with her former couples counselor.
Completing the lineage is Oona’s teenage daughter, Lydia, who has been suspended from her tony boarding school after a classmate hacked into her phone and distributed a nude selfie. Lydia’s crisis brings her parents back together to reconsider their separation, and allows Spencer to step up in his daughter’s defense and Henrietta to step forward into her granddaughter’s life.
This is a novel deeply concerned with how these women have been shaped by their relationships with men. But Nadler is also clearly interested in offering these women the opportunity to define themselves and their relationships anew. And it is to Nadler’s credit that Henrietta, Oona and Lydia are largely believable characters.
But there are missteps. Even in a family as intellectual as theirs, the women’s emotions can seem overly distant. And they are largely disembodied characters, an odd thing in a book that is so much about women’s sexuality and so very much about shame and set at ages that are such cruxes of female physical life. Oona, embarking on a new love affair at 40, makes only passing notice of her surprise at her suitor’s enthusiasm for her “less-than-perfect body.” And Lydia, at an age when girls are buffeted by messages about whom their bodies belong to, what they are for and what they should look like, moves too smoothly from vulnerability into confidence and anger.
But Nadler more than makes up for those pulled punches. “The Inseparables” is elegantly written and often funny and sharply insightful. Struggling to help Lydia, Oona observes that raising a teenager is “not so different than the way her colleagues at the hospital treated cancer. By the end, every cell in your body will be destroyed. You may or may not live. Above all else, you will need a positive attitude, you will need resilience, but prepare yourself for failure.”
This story is ripe for thought and discussion. There is so much to Henrietta’s grief over her marriage and history, Oona’s confusion over whether to stay or go, and Lydia’s fight to reclaim her body. And underneath their individual stories is the rich current of how they have failed each other. But the best part of “The Inseparables” is the fact that it exists at all.
“Do you know how rare it is,” Henrietta asks, “for a woman my age to speak without being interrupted?” Her question could easily have been spoken by her daughter or granddaughter, and it’s delicious to read an entire story about the interrupted learning to interrupt.
By Stuart Nadler
Little, Brown. 339 pp. $27