Portrait of a marriage most morose

November 28, 1993|By Joan Mooney

One of Fay Weldon's salient qualities is that she is amusingly sardonic about love and cynical about men. But in the novel "Trouble," her view has crossed the line of wit to become bitter and, well, troubling.

When we first meet Annette and Spicer, they are in bed together -- no surprise for Ms. Weldon -- and quite enamored of each other. After the first few pages, a flashback to 10 years ago, they are not happy again for the rest of the book.

After a decade of marriage, Annette Horrocks is finally pregnant. But Spicer is acting odd, caught up in astrology and spouting the New Age gobbledygook he used to despise and that Annette still does -- "the religion of weak minds," as she tells her friend Gilda. He is mean to Annette, blaming her for not understanding him, and for just about everything else. She falls right into the role of apologetic wife, blaming herself when things go wrong.

But not completely. She talks on the phone almost every day with Gilda, who is also pregnant. Annette tells Gilda both about her self-doubts and her doubts about Spicer, and even about their sex life -- which Gilda relays to her husband Steve, who mentions it to Spicer, who is then angry at Annette for telling the personal details of their life to Gilda.

Sometimes Annette apologizes to Gilda, too. At one point, she is telling Gilda intimate details of her life with Spicer, and Gilda says, "You don't have to tell me all this, Annette." Annette replies, "I'm sorry. It's too personal, isn't it, sorrow?" She may or may not be slightly sarcastic, and that's the sort of subtlety that ,, is Ms. Weldon's trademark.

To make matters worse in the Horrocks household, Spicer's wholesale wine business is on the rocks -- though Annette doesn't learn this until later -- just as her career is taking off. Her first novel, "Lucifette Fallen," is about to be published, and a good review in a New Age journal (by Spicer's therapist, it later turns out) has caused it to be picked up by Oprah Winfrey. Annette is scheduled to appear on her show in an advanced stage of pregnancy, despite Spicer's objections.

Sometime before the book opens, Spicer felt the need to seek help. On the advice of the girlfriend of the man he does not yet know was his wife's one-time lover, he goes to Dr. Rhea Marks. Married to a psychiatrist, she turns out to be not just another psychiatrist, but also a hypnotherapist and astrologer; the two of them are the most evil characters in the book.

Egged on by Dr. Rhea, Spicer continues to find fault with Annette in matters large and small, even blaming her for making him bacon sandwiches when he now eats little but fruit, and certainly no meat (he forgets how he used to love bacon sandwiches early in their marriage).

In her previous novels, when Ms. Weldon has written about the foibles of men and marriage, she has done it with humor, portraying marriage as a worthwhile institution with flaws. This time, her view is unremittingly bleak. Part of Ms. Weldon's point, presumably, is to show how women stay in destructive relationships. That is certainly true, and this situation is plausible. But it is too black and white.

Ms. Weldon has never been much for well-rounded male characters, but Spicer is truly an abomination. That is partly because he has fallen prey to two unscrupulous therapists who are themselves abominations on a dangerous power trip. There is no rule that characters have to be likable, but in this sort of novel they have to be three-dimensional, which means having some redeeming qualities. Spicer and the Markses, all important characters, fall woefully short.

Perhaps Ms. Weldon means to dismiss such people in the same fatalistic way that Gilda does toward the end of the book. "Life's easier to bear," she says, "if you can write off a sector of the populace as mad; that is, not pertaining to the race of the proper people, the nice, kind ones. Then you don't have to think anymore about any possible resemblance between you and them." The problem comes when you or your best friend marries a member of this sector.

Ms. Mooney is a writer who lives in Washington.

Title: "Trouble"

Author: Fay Weldon

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 228 pages, $21

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