[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'The Starter Wife' and 'The Starter Marriage': Rescue Me
checker at panix.com
Sun Aug 7 02:08:42 UTC 2005
'The Starter Wife' and 'The Starter Marriage': Rescue Me
New York Times Book Review, 5.8.7
[First chapter of The Starter Marriage appended.]
THE STARTER WIFE
By Gigi Levangie Grazer.
359 pp. Simon & Schuster. $24.
THE STARTER MARRIAGE
By Kate Harrison.
345 pp. New American Library. Paper. $13.95.
By LIESL SCHILLINGER
OVER 30, single and having a hard time meeting a man? Have you
considered drowning? Not to end it all, but to summon a dream date to
save you. Don't knock it till you've tried it: it works for the
freshly dumped heroines of two new novels spun around the phenomenon
of ''starter marriages.''
Meet Gracie, the buffed, silicone-enhanced and Botoxed 41-year-old
star of the Malibu fairy tale ''The Starter Wife,'' whose ''forehead
was as unlined as the hood of a new Porsche'' but whose
studio-executive husband has left her anyway . . . for Britney Spears.
And then there's Tip-top Tess, a tight-lipped 35-year-old schoolmarm
who belatedly realizes she had ''been careless enough to neglect my
marriage, but had never neglected my dental hygiene,'' and whose slow
post-breakup learning curve provides the structure for ''The Starter
Marriage,'' a glum British fable set in Birmingham (which is to Malibu
as the work boot is to Cinderella's glass slipper).
The starter marriage is a fashionable concept of late, much batted
about in breezy magazine articles alongside topics like French cuffs,
spray-on tans and computer-cataloged wardrobe libraries. Typically,
the term is defined as a first marriage of short duration, entered
into by people too young to have given the ''till death us do part''
clause much thought. It produces no children and no messy legal
battles. For the purpose of these novels, however, its boundaries have
been stretched to include any marriage -- even one with issue -- that
ends after one spouse has turned louse and before either spouse has
''The Starter Wife'' is the third and funniest in a succession of
novels about the cutthroat social mores of the entertainment industry
by a woman who has witnessed them up close, Gigi Levangie Grazer (the
keeper-wife of the producer Brian Grazer). Her heroine, Gracie
Pollock, née Peters, wife of the studio bigwig Kenny Pollock, has
started to feel ''like a pencil drawing that was being slowly,
methodically erased.'' Before marriage bumped her into a life of
surgically enhanced grooming and enforced socializing, she was a
successful children's book writer. Lately, though, her thoughts are
consumed by concerns like ''Why are the tennis court lights on at 8
a.m.?'' and ''The orchids in the foyer are dying.''
A brutal wake-up call rouses her from the enchantment: her husband
demands a divorce, via cellphone. Gracie flees with her 3-year-old
daughter, Jaden, to a friend's beach house in the celebrity-infested
Malibu Colony, where she soon upends herself in a kayak and -- hey
presto! -- along comes a leading man with salt-and-pepper hair and
swimtrunks as orange as a lifeguard's buoy, who clasps her to his
brawny chest. Gazing at her rescuer, Gracie sees her future flash
before her eyes: ''He was tall; he was built; he was tan; he had a
strong jawline and wide-set dark eyes, my God, he had great hair; and
he was in her demographic. And there was no wedding ring. Gracie felt
like one of them should speak, since obviously they were going to be
Alas, Poseidon turns out to be a beach bum, former addict and Vietnam
vet named Sam Knight, who has slept behind a shrubbery for two
decades. But, as Gracie knows, it doesn't do to be picky if you're a
rejected ''wife of'' in Hollywood. After little Jaden returns from a
weekend with Daddy and his pop tart wearing a ''tight pink T-shirt
with the words PORN STAR on it, tied and knotted up under her rib
cage, and tiny pink shorts that looked like they had come from
Barbie's closet,'' Gracie finds herself in the mood to rationalize.
She even writes a pros-and-cons list to help assess Sam's viability as
a husband and father. Some pros: ''not underfoot'' and ''could make
own meals out of neighbor's trash.'' A con: ''Would he insist on
showering from the hose?'' Could there be the remotest hope that Mr.
Homeless's fortunes are more blue-chip than initially appears? Could
he -- ''My Man Godfrey''-style -- even turn out to be a strayed
Meanwhile, across the continent and across the Atlantic, another newly
hatched starter wife is submerged in the British journalist Kate
Harrison's second novel. Tip-top Tess has spent 17 years with Barney
Leonard when he leaves her for his secretary. Not only has Tess's
marriage turned out to be a starter marriage; her life has turned out
to be a starter life. Her zeal for housecleaning has vanished; the
divorce recovery course she signed up for has yielded only a sad tryst
with a traffic cop; and a longtime friend tells her that her ex isn't
the problem: ''You asked for it. I think you took him for granted. You
were very lucky to land him, Tess. He's a great bloke. Or was.''
This is what we read for escape? The reality is too crushing even for
Tess, who accompanies her pupils on a river trip for diversion, though
she has harbored an unholy terror of water -- ''even the inviting,
harmless depths of turquoise hotel pools'' -- ever since a boating
trip with her ex and his office mates landed her chest-deep in the
drink. This time the excursion is led by a cheerful widower named
Robin, who is manly and appealing even if he has a ''borderline bald
forehead'' and ''a mouth so full of teeth that his front ones are
protruding.'' Tess, unlike Gracie, has no expectation that a
glitter-encrusted rainbow might pop up in the leaden skies of the West
Midlands. Besides, Robin has the ''air of authority'' of a commando
and a warm handshake. Might he do?
Coaxing the bristly Tess into a kayak, Robin helps overcome her fear
of drowning by submerging the boat, making her count to three and
promising to stand by and save her should the need arise. She submits
-- ''Knowing Robin is counting with me makes me certain that
everything will be all right'' -- and pops back up to the surface,
''blinking at the light like a newborn foal.'' If Tess can overcome
her instinct to fight off all comers, her real life might just begin
-- a clean slate that presumably can be rewiped at will should Robin
fail to suit. Given the risks, his better option may be to give the
kayak another twirl and run for it.
Ah, first marriages. The miracle isn't that they happen; it's that
second ones do. When Gracie, still blissfully wed, spots a de-spoused
Hollywood wife at the outset of Grazer's novel, she notices that the
woman looks different: ''She looked . . . older. She looked . . . not
so blond. She looked . . . rounder, softer. . . . And something else,
Gracie thought. She didn't look mean. She looked, Gracie thought,
could it be? Normal.'' That badge of normalcy -- a mark of shame for
the sniping ''wife of'' socialites Grazer caricatures in her ruthless,
burbling satire -- is Tess's humble goal, and it's a reasonable one
for lonely hearts on the lookout for a mate, whether starter or
subsequent. But dreamers like Gracie, who are seeking not a real new
mate but one they can script to please themselves, will relish the
less realistic sheen of Grazer's vivacious and vengeful fantasy, which
puts a delectable candy coating on the poison apple of disprized love
as they steel their courage to dare another bite.
Liesl Schillinger is an arts editor at The New Yorker and a regular
contributor to the Book Review.
First chapter of 'The Starter Marriage'
By KATE HARRISON
When Barney came into the kitchen on Boxing Day and told me he was
leaving me for his secretary, I didn't cry. I didn't cling on to his
ankles, begging him to stay. I didn't attack him with the Le Creuset
pan I was drying at the time (the thought did occur to me but it was
part of a set of five my parents bought us as a wedding present and a
gap in the display rack would have added insult to injury).
All I said was, 'Let's try to make sure things don't get messy.'
He laughed, a dry, coughing sound that made me wince. 'No, of course
not. There'd be nothing worse for Tip Top Tess than to make a mess,
would there?' And he left the room and the house and our marriage. I
finished drying the pan and hung it up before I burst into tears.
Tip Top Tess. It's not a sexy nickname, but it is accurate and if
wanting things to be neat and tidy is my only fault, I don't think I'm
doing too badly. I give to charity, I'm kind to animals and small
children and I remember all my friends' birthdays. Since when has
tidiness been a crime?
So when I spent the first New Year's Eve of my life alone, my
resolution was to avoid nastiness, to stay as civilised and proper as
I would in any other situation, to keep things shipshape. Ready for
when Barney came back.
And, as far as my nearests and dearests are concerned, I've been
pulling it off. Somehow I've managed to maintain the status quo, or at
least the illusion of the status quo, for five months.
Only I know how far I've slipped. Until tonight. Then the doorbell
rings and it all falls apart.
I tiptoe into the hall and peer through the spyhole. Mel's face looms
up at me, distorted by the fisheye lens so she looks all eyes and nose
... exactly the features I don't want scrutinising my current living
I wonder if she's seen me through the glass panel? I'm trapped now,
unable to escape upstairs in case she catches a glimpse of movement
and realises I'm here. Maybe if I crouch down behind the door and
wait, there's a chance she might leave. No harm done.
The reproduction Edwardian bell rings again and I feel the
reverberation through the wooden frame. Of all my friends, Mel is the
least likely to give up easily. After fifteen years as a reporter,
she's used to hanging about on doorsteps, playing cat-and-mouse with
the criminals or adulterers inside. They always break before she does.
She sticks her hand through the letterbox, so I try to manoeuvre my
body out of range. This means crouching down even further so that my
head is on my knees and I get a close-up view of the carpet. It's
worse than I thought. There are grey clusters of dust gathered like
storm clouds at the edges of the skirting board and a pair of worn
tights under the console table. She definitely can't come in.
But my faint hope that she might still get bored and settle for
leaving a note is dashed when she screams 'HONEY! I know you're in
there! You forgot to turn the telly off.'
Oh God. The duh-duh-duh of the EastEnders theme tune booms from the
living room, reinforcing my basic error. I feel like a character in a
French farce, playing hide-and-seek with my best friend, only I don't
feel any urge to laugh. Crying seems the more appropriate response,
but my biggest fear is that if I start, I will never stop.
'Come ON, Tess!' she shouts. 'I'm not going anywhere so you might as
well open the door.'
My legs are aching now: I might have had a chance of sitting, or
rather crouching it out before Christmas, when I was going to step
classes three times a week and had thighs of steel. But then again,
before Christmas I had no need to avoid Mel or anyone else.
On my hands and knees I reverse away from the door as far back as the
stairs, stand up and then pound loudly on the bottom step as if I'm
walking down. I put the security chain in place, take a deep breath
and finally open the door a few inches.
'About bloody time! What the hell have you been up to in there?'
'Um ... Sorry, I was in the bath.' She stares at me through the gap in
the door. I'm still wearing my work clothes, there are biro marks all
over my hands and my hair hasn't been washed in a week.
'Really?' She says. 'Well, now you're out of the bath, don't keep me
standing here like a door-to-door salesman. I've brought a bottle of
wine.' She waves an Oddbins bag at me.
'It's not a good time.'
'Don't be daft, honey. I'm fed up with you not returning my calls so I
thought it was time to take affirmative action.'
'Honestly, Mel, I'm not in the mood ... I appreciate the gesture, but
why don't we arrange to go out next week instead?'
'What, so you can cancel on me again?' Her face takes on the same
determined expression she used to adopt on anti-apartheid
demonstrations when we were students. She was always getting arrested,
though I never was: a bolshie busty black woman is bound to attract
more attention from the cops than a tidy, skinny white one. 'No way. I
am going to stay here until you let me in.'
'Give me a second,' I say, pushing the door to, while I consider my
options. They're not exactly promising. If I let her in, she'll see
the shocking state of my house and, by implication, the even more
shocking state of my mind. But if I leave her outside, it'll give the
neighbours something extra to gossip about. I'm sure it's only a
matter of days before they present me with a petition about the height
of the weeds in my tiny front garden. Victoria Terrace is that kind of
street. I can't afford to give the Residents' Association any more
reasons to complain ...
'OK, you win.' I fiddle around with the chain, before opening the
door. The sunlight illuminates a million dust particles in the hall: I
dread to think what it's doing to my poor, tired face. As Mel steps
into the hall, I brace myself. 'Don't say I didn't warn you.'
'About what?' She says, then stops short, looking around in confusion,
as though she's walked into someone else's house. 'What the hell's
happened to Tip Top Tess?'
I've been wondering the same myself. My latest theory is that my alter
ego slipped away with Barney - since he walked out with his suitcases,
simply existing has taken all my energy. There hasn't been any left
for the housework.
But there's a difference between a dim awareness that I might have let
things go, and seeing the reality through someone else's eyes. Which
is why I've let nobody across the threshold for five months.
'Mel, it's not as bad as it looks, it's just I haven't had much time
lately to do the housework, but -'
'I had no idea things were as bad as this ...'
'Yeah, it's a bit depressing, I grant you. But, look, as you've come
over, why don't we go out, grab a pizza?'
'Not till I've had a proper look,' she says, stepping cautiously over
the piles of project work and free newspapers I've allowed to build up
in the hall. To my worn-out mind, it's a logical place - handy for me
to grab what I need before heading to school, and close to the
recycling box I keep by the porch. Except I haven't got round to
recycling since ... well, since Christmas. 'At least now I can see why
you haven't invited me round to supper for a while.'
I dash ahead of her to close the door to the kitchen. The mess in
there makes the hallway look like Buckingham Palace. 'Well, I haven't
really been up to a six-course dinner party.'
The living room presents the next logistical problem. Every surface is
covered in stuff. These days I tend to slump onto a floor cushion as
soon as I get home, but it wouldn't be polite to expect a guest to do
the same. I calculate instantly that the armchair will take the least
time to clear. It's only holding a few dozen Sunday supplements and an
empty pizza box. At least, I hope it's empty. The sofa is a different
story, the tan leather barely visible under crisp packets and clothes
and exercise books and unopened post. And as for the coffee table ...
Mel pulls the tissue-wrapped bottle of wine out of the bag. 'I think
it's time we had a little chat.'
My heart beats faster. Will I be able to track down two clean glasses
anywhere in the house? Perhaps the tooth mug will do for me, the one
Barney and I brought back from Corfu in 1994 because its cobalt blue
sheen reminded us of the painted houses. It might look a bit less
decrepit than the chipped black enamel camping beaker I've been using
for all forms of liquid refreshment, from morning coffee to evening
Who am I kidding?
I scrunch the blue tissue paper into a loose ball, and bounce it
towards the gap under the sofa. Now I've given in to slob-dom, I must
confess there is the occasional frisson of pleasure to be had from
adding to the chaos.
'Nice wine,' I say, reading the label. I retrieve the corkscrew from
under an upturned foil box that once held chop suey. In the midst of
the chaos, I've developed a kind of radar which means I can always
locate my Waiter's Friend. The same applies to my other lifeline, the
TV remote. I use it now to mute the ever-whinging cast of EastEnders
and pass Mel the corkscrew. 'Back in a sec.'
It does pong a bit in the kitchen. I never quite got round to taking
the rubbish out last week and this is the hottest room of the house.
It's still only May but the slight whiff of sweet decay propels me
back to the summers of my childhood, when the days were long, the tar
melted beneath our feet, and the binmen went on strike....
More information about the paleopsych