Too-late tale of meddling murderer-to-be

January 13, 1994|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Contributing Writer

I usually like Judith Viorst's writing. She's done an impressive variety of books -- seven collections of delightful, ironic verse about several treacherous stages of adulthood; 10 children's books; and four works of nonfiction, including the serious and cerebral "Necessary Losses."

But although "Murdering Mr. Monti," her first novel, can be entertaining, it doesn't work. Her writing seems labored and the plot is forced.

It's a shame, for there are some funny elements to the book. There's a good bit about the heroine's letters to her sons when she imagines she's dying of a brain tumor. She instructs them, through decades of adulthood: "Don't slouch. Don't mumble. Help the needy. . . . Marry for character rather than for breasts."

But the heroine, Brenda Kovner, a successful, middle-age syndicated advice columnist living in Washington, is such a knowing busybody that after a while the laughter turns to an urge to throttle and, above all, to silence her. This urge is shared by her husband and sons and her frazzled, self-absorbed sister (who is even more irritating than Brenda).

The story is a silly P. G. Wodehouse kind of tale, with lots of coincidences and mistaken identities, but told in the voice resembling Nora Ephron or Joan Rivers -- with a hard '90s edge. The convoluted, sometimes harsh plot is mixed with a snappy, self-congratulatory narrative style, and it doesn't create satisfying, empathy-arousing comedy.

Briefly, Brenda is planning to murder Joseph Augustus Monti because Mr. Monti, the father of her son's fiancee, is going to call in the stupendous debts (from a questionable real estate scheme) of Brenda's other son, thereby ruining him. Mr. Monti, a Roman Catholic, is also enraged because his daughter has chosen to convert to Judaism when she marries Wally Kovner, and because Mr. Monti's wife has begun to question -- at Brenda's suggestion -- his autocratic ways.

Earlier, Brenda, veteran of a long and happy marriage to a pediatric surgeon, had decided that she must have three one-time affairs in order to add a bit more sexual experience to her personal resume. She chose Mr. Monti (of the sharky smile and vile disposition) as one of her lovers because he fits some requisites of her designated paramour list. (He's married and a twin.) She also beds down with a much younger black activist and a famous TV pundit.

Things collapse around Brenda, not because of the adultery, but largely because of her uncontrollable meddling.

Her husband leaves, her son's engagement is broken, and the other son falls into a financial abyss, but our heroine barely comes close to harboring feelings of guilt.

She feels a little twinge about sleeping with her son's prospective father-in-law; she becomes worried about losing her husband and has dizzy spells to demonstrate her agitation. But her greatest chagrin is when she miscalculates the cost of bailing her son out of his real estate ventures. She professes to have "a profound grasp of the human condition," but cogitative cleverness is paramount in the heart and soul of Brenda Kovner.

Timing is everything, and perhaps if Ms. Viorst had written "Murdering Mr. Monti" 10 years ago, the book would sit better. Then, it would have been both entertaining and an entitlement to indulge every whim, and having street and salon savvy was so important.

But it seems that we're living in darker times now. Greedy offspring who get involved in shady real estate deals; self-indulgent, have-it-all people (of either gender); and attempted murder are not as funny as they used to be, if they ever really were.

Ms. Egerton is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Murdering Mr. Monti: A Merry Little Tale of Sex and Violence"

Author: Judith Viorst

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 254 pages, $21

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