Release date: 03/01/2003
A starred or boxed review indicates a book of outstanding quality. A review with a blue-tinted title indicates a book of exceptional importance that hasn't received a starred or boxed review.
Wolitzer (Sleepwalking) opens her latest tale in the first-class cabin of an airplane. Joan, a still-striking 64-year-old woman, observes her husband, the "short, wound-up, slack-bellied" famous novelist Joe Castleman, as he lolls in his seat and accepts the treats and attention offered him by the flight attendants. The couple are on their way to Finland, where Joe will receive the fictional Helsinki Prize, not quite as prestigious as the Nobel, but worth a small fortune—the crown jewel in a spectacular career. Yet as the once blonde Smith College co-ed looks over at the once handsome creative writing teacher who seduced her, she realizes that she must end this marriage. The reader is prepared for a tale of witty disillusionment. Here is Joan on the literary fame game: "You might even envy us—him for all the power vacuum-packed within his bulky, shopworn body, and me for my twenty-four-hour-access to it, as though a famous and brilliant writer-husband is a convenience store for his wife, a place she can dip into anytime for a Big Gulp of astonishing intellect and wit and excitement." As the narrative flows from the glamorous present back to the past, tracing the bohemian Greenwich Village beginnings of the couple's relationship and Joe's skyrocketing success and compulsive philandering, an almost subliminal psychological horror tale begins to unfold. Wolitzer delicately chips away at this seemingly confident and detached narrator and her swaggering "genius" husband, inserting a sly clue here and there, until the extent of Joan's sacrifice is made clear. There is no cheap, gratifying Hollywood ending to make it all better. Instead, Wolitzer's crisp pacing and dry wit carry us headlong into a devastating message about the price of love and fame. If it's a story we've heard before, the tale is as resonant as ever in Wolitzer's hands. (Apr.)