by Sylvia Brownrigg
Sylvia Brownrigg's previous novel The Delivery Room was a brilliant depiction of the personal life of a psychotherapist. As the patients came through her house we saw the impact of their lives on her own and her struggle to prevent the stresses caused by the illness of her husband from escaping into the sanctuary she provided for those in need. The therapist, Mira, was a brilliantly drawn character, totally convincing as a distinct person and personality, much like the housekeeper, Emerence, in Magda Szabo's superb The Door. Having just read one tale of a woman moving between her husband and her lover, Brownrigg's latest novel has the same premise albeit starting from a different place.
Nobody wants to be a second wife. It's nobody's great ambition in life, to inhabit days loud with shouted schedule conflicts, telephones slammed down or cursed into, cars speeding away with the hysterical exclamation point of burnt rubber...Therefore, second wives. If it turns out to be you, if that's the straw you happen to draw- tough luck. You're never going to get the kind of joy you hoped for when you walk into a marriage that used to belong to somebody else. It's like moving into a new house that still has half the previous owner's furniture in it. You'd like to get rid of the all-plaid living-room set, but somehow you're stuck with it, forever.
In my case, the plaid living-room set was called Theresa.
When Pan, as she is nicknamed, met her husband she was an emotional mess, busy working on a book she called her Dictionary of Betrayal, 'A collection of words and their meanings that would gradually build a story, a world. Betrayal, Abandonment, Grief, Sex, Lying' you get the idea; and indeed these definitions begin each chapter. He sees that she needs help and is the man to provide it. 'I want to keep you like a key. I want to put you in my pocket. I want to hold you close, make you safe, calm and happy.' The impediment of course is that he is only just-about-separated from his wife, so their relationship has to ride first the choppy waters of his divorce from Theresa, and as they marry her curses fly overhead 'like paparazzi helicopters'.
It isn't long before she finds that her life has stopped moving, become stationary; a knowing wink comes from the author as she places Pan at work in a stationery shop, joking about how her friends misspell the two words. At home she is drowning in a sea of discarded clothing from not only her husband but his two sons. What had begun as a comfort has become far too comfortable. So when Richard, the stationery salesman who 'pushes the envelope' enters her life his attentions make a welcome change. He is an unlikely candidate for an affair looking as he does like an 'Irish Santa Claus...Somebody whose suit buttons didn't really want to stay closed' but as Pan explains, his good humour and zen-like mysticisms are what she finds attractive. They meet in a falafel joint called The Promised Land, conjuring a hopeful future, and there they simply talk, but when her husband catches the two of them holding hands on a park bench he is apoplectic.
In the morality plays of old an everyman character would meet the personifications of various virtues and vices, learning along the way the path to a good life. Pan isn't everywoman but she articulates, with great humour at times, the thoughts I should think of many women. Whether or not she completes a journey into moral redemption is not really Brownrigg's concern. Pan has been uniquely shaped by her life experience, which Brownrigg reveals slowly, saving the most pertinent information until the novel's close. She is morally flawed too; aware for example that not knowing what just-about-separated meant exactly is as pathetic an excuse as the moment when one of her stepsons asks if it is ok to do something wrong if you don't know that it's wrong. I was surprised by one of the similarities to Jennie Walker's 24 for 3. Both books contain characters who found themselves marrying their spouses primarily it seemed in retrospect because of their lovely children, something I would have found hard to believe if I hadn't read it twice in a week. This short novel has lots to say about modern marriage and modern morality and Brownrigg shows with great skill the complexities in an age of second families, stepchildren and all-plaid living-room sets.