By Sylvia Brownrigg
Counterpoint, 224 pp., $24
"Nobody wants to be a second wife," Sylvia Brownrigg writes in "Morality Tale," her unflinching new novel about a woman who realizes - almost too late - that in marrying her husband, she also married his bitter first wife.
Second wives, Brownrigg writes, aren't "Choice Number One." If you're a second wife, it means your husband "belonged to someone else first." Worse, middle-age divorcés often tote baggage: needy, hapless children and poisonously resentful exes who are out to sabotage their mate's new marriage.
Brownrigg's narrator, whom her two "joint-custody-blighted" stepsons have nicknamed Pan, short for "pandemonium," is astute enough to understand that the underlying problem with her "undernourished marriage" is the way it began: Her husband started seeing her while he was still married to Theresa, his first wife. As Pan vividly describes it, "We married with her curses flying overhead like paparazzi helicopters."
In female-centric books about second marriages, someone is always the fall guy, depending on who's doing the telling: either the faithless husband (as in Nora Ephron's "Heartburn"), the home-wrecker babe, or the shrewish first wife. Brownrigg writes from the point of view of a sympathetic "babe." The way Pan sees her relationship with her husband, Theresa "neglected him to the point of desiccation and withering, and that's how I found him."
Lacking friends, never mind any sort of Second Wives' Club, for support, Pan seeks solace from a riskier outlet: another man. She's drawn to Richard Applebee, the overstuffed, gentle envelope supplier at the stationery store where she works. Richard is a listener, "a poultice. A balm." Pan finds him comforting and positive. But - maybe it's just me - he's a bit creepy, part sexless cuddle toy, part lecherous loner who calls her Angel and spouts Zen-like platitudes that she finds inspirational. She doesn't even know where he lives. When they wander off to a desolate cemetery together, I half-expected the novel to take a dark turn.
Brownrigg keeps things lighter than that. When Pan's husband catches her holding hands with Richard on a park bench, he rages, but impotently. She notes the irony of "a known adulterer . . . expressing such intense moral outrage at the imagined adultery perpetrated by someone else." The husband is no dreamboat either: angry, possessive, demanding, inattentive. Pan's repeated protests - "I loved and still do love that man" - ring hollow. She accommodates him by cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring his children, making love on demand. "I knew the script," she says, and we wait for her to realize that she's playing the wrong part. Her husband drags her to his marriage counselor, where both men "did not once think to ask me why the envelope guy had meant something to me, what pocket of loneliness there was within me."
Richard Applebee is the only character besides Dr. Puffin who is given a full name in "Morality Tale." Pan's husband remains unnamed until she finally learns to view him as an individual rather than a role. Personal histories and the Northern California setting are also left deliberately vague. We learn that Pan's low-key job selling stationery was her husband's idea, deemed a more constructive use of her time than the "Dictionary of Betrayal" she'd been writing when he met her. Was she a writer? We aren't told how she supported herself before she took on the job of second wife.
We do learn that Pan is haunted by betrayals in her past - which she hints at repeatedly, but never fully explicates. She insists that being a betrayer is harder than being betrayed, something you never get over: "You slice someone else open, someone you love, and it's you who starts oozing."
All this nonspecificity is a deliberate choice, but a somewhat alienating one. In keeping with its generic title, "Morality Tale" is meant to be an emblematic story about what happens when a marriage sets off on the wrong foot and one of its partners seeks solace elsewhere. Fortunately, there's nothing generic about Brownrigg's lively, intelligent prose.
But the two male sides of her love triangle leave something to be desired, and the book's tidy wrap-up is unconvincing. Oddly, it's Richard the human pillow who gets to deliver the moral of this tale, reminding Pan that "no one has to be angry about anything; you choose to be angry." Try telling that to the jilted wife. More resonantly, he demonstrates the supreme importance of being a good listener. Brownrigg's lovely expression for this precious gift is "someone opening their ears for you, allowing, awaiting the pour."
Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for newspapers.