cover image An Actual Life

An Actual Life

Abigail Thomas. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $17.95 (252pp) ISBN 978-1-56512-133-1

In her first novel, Thomas, who began writing at age 50 after a career as a literary agent and editor, displays the same incisive character portrayal and bantering prose that readers enjoyed in her collection of short stories, Getting Over Tom. Here, she has taken one of those stories, about the shotgun wedding of college students Virginia and Buddy in 1960, and produced a spirited and often very funny novel about their horrendous marriage. The events, related in Virginia's voice, take place mostly in the house of Buddy's sweet, goofy Aunt Dot, in Buddy's New Jersey hometown. Virginia's life now revolves around her baby, Madeline-which is a good thing, since Buddy is sneaking around with his longtime love and ex-girlfriend, the truck-driving, heavily made-up Irene, who happens to be married to his best friend. Although she doesn't love Buddy and bravely accepts Irene's attempts at friendship, Virginia is still hurt by Buddy's infidelity. Ultimately, she must decide whether she will conform to what her family-and even Buddy himself-expect: that she stay in a loveless marriage for the sake of the baby. Thomas does a masterful job in portraying Virginia: she is terribly naive, has little sense of herself, is uptight, sexually prudish and superstitious. Yet she is also a very young woman stuck in a rotten situation, and her spunky, if often clueless, attempts to make the best of things-and to discover what she wants-are endearing and compelling. (May)