[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'The Starter Wife' and 'The Starter Marriage': Rescue Me

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'The Starter Wife' and 'The Starter Marriage': Rescue Me
New York Times Book Review, 5.8.7
[First chapter of The Starter Marriage appended.]

By Gigi Levangie Grazer.
359 pp. Simon & Schuster. $24.

By Kate Harrison.
345 pp. New American Library. Paper. $13.95.


    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
    actually flatlined.

    ''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
    society scion?

    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'


    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
    whisky nightcap.

    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....

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