Books Are Pretty

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Still Life With Husband.

You could sum this book up accurately just from the title (Still Life With Husband) and the cover (a woman, photographed from the back, in the act of removing her wedding ring.) Bored housewife. Suburbs. Husband, dull but kind. Sassy best friend as confidant. Too many sweets eaten to compensate for lack of adventure. Finds romance. Must choose.

And you'd be exactly right. In Lauren Fox's debut novel, Emily, the protagonist who describes herself as having a "mop of shoulder-length brown hair that is often more frizz than ringlets, dark brown eyes, and a large nose with a bump on the bridge." (In other words, Emily is a dead ringer for the author.) She is married to Kevin, a technical writer in love with his job. If you know any technical writers, you'd know how rare that is - inside every writer who carefully crafts the wording of stereo instructions beats the heart of Salman Rushdie, after all. Kevin, we are to assume, is a very sweet, very boring man who wants nothing more than to spirit Emily away to the boring burbs to buy a boring house and have 2.3 boring children. Emily, who has made it clear she does not want to live in the burbs or have children, has been resisting for awhile, but is starting to crack under the pressure of what she feels she should want.

Enter David, the sexy distraction, and the affair Emily plunges into with him signals the death toll of her marriage.

Affairs, as the experts will tell you, are not the cause of a marriage's end, they are but a symptom. Emily is under no illusion about the fact that she's deliberately trying to torch her marriage, but the guilt she feels is at times overwhelming.

Still Life With Husband is a prime example of why the Chicklit genre is so overwhelmingly successful. Emily's story is a blueprint of the soul of the Western woman, and the tender places Fox touches gives off painful twinges of recognition.

Emily is a woman who has a loving family and friends. She is well-educated but underemployed as an editor for a medical magazine about male reproduction. She is not confident about her physical appearance.

Let's stop right there and break that down.

1.) Emily is a woman who has a loving family and friends. Parents that she does not want to disappoint, who have made their hopes and expectations clear: It would make us very happy if our daughter were to get married and have children and that her husband take care of her so we do not have to worry about what will happen to her after we die.

Very rarely is the hope of the middle class parent I hope my daughter has a blazing career so she will always be financially independent. The end. It's great if that happens, but that's just gravy. Countless women absorb that primary directive of finding a good man who will take care of them, and countless more women internalize that if this is done, then happiness will follow. Because 1.) is the primary directive, that often leads to

2.) Well-educated but underemployed. Because 1.) is the ultimate goal, careers are often relegated to the backseat. They're never taken as seriously as what He does, because He's going to be the one working while She stays home, at least while the kids are little.

And then there's 3.)

She is not confident about her physical appearance. Of course she isn't. None of us are. We live in a world where the most beautiful women in the world are considered unsuitable for magazine covers unless they're photoshopped beyond recognition, where Richard Roeper publishes an essay expressing how offended he was at the sight of a size 8 woman in her underwear on a billboard. Not because she was in her underwear per se, but because he feels he should be entitled to only be presented with hawt, size 2 women at all times.

And there she is. She married a man that essentially, her parents chose; the man she feels she should want. Kevin: stable, kind, uneventful. She tells herself she loves him, because she feels that she should, and if she doesn't, then something is wrong with her, because a man who can take care of her is what she has been told will make her happy. Not his creativity, not his goals or ambitions, not his interest in her as a person. Had she held him to those standards, he would have failed on all accounts, because Kevin, despite all evidence to the contrary, ain't no prize pig.

It took me two days to finally conclude, with a satisfying jolt of insight, that not only was I not ready to have a baby, but that I didn't want to move out of our little apartment in the city, either - our bustling corner of the city where the sidewalks are crowded with people, and the movie theater, the bookstore and our favorite restaurants are all within a few blocks. Phew, I thought. Good thing I've figured this out before it's too late. I'll just go explain it to Kevin.

But my revelation was a mosquito in his ear; he flicked it away. Since then, Kevin has pressed on in his quest of suburban migration, alternating between ignoring me and thinking he can change my mind by sheer persistence.

Kevin, too, is a product of a society that tells young women that what they want is not really what they want, and this causes him to completely dismiss her feelings on such an important issue. And Emily isn't so sure that he isn't correct to dismiss her - after all, she is lucky. Lucky that she has found a man who fits the bill, a man who, despite her less-than-perfect looks, is willing to have her. How could she not be grateful? How could she not be happy? How could she reject his offer of a house and children? Something Must Be Wrong With Her!

Because of this, when a good-looking young man, David, catches her eye at a coffee shop while she is spending the morning with her BFF, the saucy, fertility-challenged Meg, and expresses interest in her, her world is completely rocked. David is, to Emily, a vision of what could be, and the part of her soul that still values her individuality, that tells her that mummifying herself in other people's expectations is wrong.

Despite her guilt and apprehension, Emily embarks on the affair with him. Had she not been so convinced that the person that she is is not the person she should be, she may have been able to muster up the confidence to end the badly-matched relationship with Kevin. Or, at best, to have rejected his proposal in the first place.

Lauren Fox has unerringly placed Emily on the sweetspot of the modern straight woman's internal battleground. She is all of us, but with snappier dialogue. And as long as girls are told who to look for, rather than who to be, Fox's books, and the myriad others like hers, will keep flying off the shelves.


Still Life With Husband
by Lauren Fox
April, 2008 by Vintage
Paperback, 308pp
ISBN: 978-0307277374

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