Four characters in search of more story dTC

September 05, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

At some point, nearly every fiction writer turns to the family as a subject. It's there that one finds some of the most potent themes: love and hatred, the cycle of life and death, the bond between child and parent, the institution of marriage.

In eight previous novels, Gail Godwin returned to the family again and again ("Father Melancholy's Daughter," "A Southern Family," "A Mother and Two Daughters"). Like many writers who grew up in the South, she understands the shaping influences of the family -- how it can be a source of great inspiration and nurturing, or a force that brings pain and emotional destruction.

Ms. Godwin comes back to the family in "The Good Husband," her first novel since 1991's "Father Melancholy's Daughter." This time, she focuses on two marriages and the impact that death has on each. But although the novel's framework is promising, "The Good Husband" is a frustrating, maddeningly slow novel that ultimately doesn't tell us a whole lot.

One of the marriages in question is between Magda Danvers, a brilliant, bawdy and somewhat cantankerous academic, and her husband of 25 years, Francis Lake. He was studying for the priesthood when Magda met him in 1966; she was delivering a lecture at his seminary. Each, for various reasons, was drawn to the other, though even a quarter-century later, they seem an odd match. She was egocentric, demanding and driven; he was obsessively reticent and closed off.

But now, in 1991, Magda has contracted ovarian cancer and has but several months to live. Characteristically, she confronts her disease head-on, refusing chemotherapy and maintaining a grimly realistic attitude. "It comes and goes," Magda tells a visitor early in her illness. "It has a life of its own. I've named it the Gargoyle. Every day its grin stretched wider at my expense, but of course from its point of view, I'm the impediment. I'm the thing in the way of its development and growth."

Since their marriage, Francis had always subordinated his career, his life goals to help Magda in her academic career. He did the cooking and the cleaning and helped her in her research. He paid the bills and handled her correspondence. Now he must care for her as she dies.

The other marriage is between Hugo and Alice Henry. Hugo is writer-in-residence at the upstate New York college at which Magda has taught for many years; Alice is his former editor. They have been married but a few years, and they both know their marriage was a mistake. There was never true love: Alice was attracted to his writing, and he was attracted to someone who was attracted to his writing.

She is intelligent, quiet and self-contained; Hugo is emotional and abrasive. But whereas Magda and Francis, mismatched though they may be, have put together a long-lasting marriage, Hugo and Alice never mesh. When their baby dies shortly after birth, their estrangement grows more pronounced.

By halfway through "The Good Husband," the possibilities are there for strong dramatic tension: a decaying marriage and an enduring one that is being tested to the limit by the illness of one spouse; grief for the loss of very young life and building grief for the imminent lose of another. Alice, still mourning her baby's death, begins to visit Magda, who is slipping rapidly. She finds solace in visiting Magda -- and also finds herself attracted to Francis.

Most of the rest of the book deals with the slow dance between Alice and Francis. There are obvious impediments: Francis is caring for his dying wife, and Alice is saddled with a marriage going bust. And, after all, these are good people who will always do the Right Thing.

But the will-they-or-won't-they subtext grows wearisome, primarily because Francis and Alice, despite all the attention Ms. Godwin affords them, are distinctly unattractive people. They are passive-aggressives to the extreme, unwilling or unable to act on their own impulses or overtly do something in their own interests. They come off not as decent people caught in an untenable situation, but as self-absorbed twits.

The presence of such unsympathetic main characters detracts from the book's strengths. In particular, the depiction of Magda's declining health and the beleaguered Francis' attempts to care for a spouse who grows increasingly demanding, even cruel, is superbly done.

In the end, though, "The Good Husband" grates too much -- you want to throttle Francis and Alice, and Magda herself is never fully drawn. This book recalls the advice column in Ladies Home Journal called "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" Mostly, readers may not even care.

?3 Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Good Husband"

Author: Gail Godwin

Publisher: Ballantine

Length, price:

468 pages, $22.95

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