Laura is a New Yorker who lives on the East Side, illustrates a children's magazine, is married to an attractive doctor named David, and has a small and naturally graceful son, Ian. Laura and David are decent, wholesome and civilized. She has a trust fund to help them stay that way. Covering all bases, she feels guilty about it.
But wait. Laura is numb. David, though hairy as well as handsome, is self-absorbed and does not arouse her. They split up, and Laura falls in love with a photographer who is lean and sexy, and possesses interesting bones and a wandering spirit. For the first time, she knows physical passion. When the wandering spirit removes the photographer, Laura meets a sweet-tempered carpenter, sturdy and smelling of turpentine. For the second time, she knows physical passion.
But wait. The photographer's name is Julia. The carpenter's name is Jane.
To be sure, the author, Meg Wolitzer gave us a hint at the start. Laura's professional specialty is drawing objects hidden inside larger objects--toys in trees, for instance--for children to discover. A significant image, the reader may suspect; but should the reader fail to, Wolitzer helps out. "It was a perfect conceit for her life," she writes.
The author is helpful in other ways, too. To evoke the growing distance between Laura and David, she mentions the closet divider that separates their clothes. Then she gives Laura the urge to open the closet door and exclaim: "Look inside. What a metaphor. Just look."
"Hidden Pictures" is full of such authorial chaperoning. This novel about a modern lesbian heroine is as cozy as the kind of romance that used to be published in women's magazines; and perhaps still is. Its tigers are household tabbies. Radclyffe Hall has been fitted with jogging clothes and domestic worries. It is as if Campbell's Soup had adapted a recipe for bourride.
The novelty of "Hidden Pictures" is its attempt to write about lesbian love, not as part of a separate culture, but trying to fit into mainstream life. It is pretty much a failure, partly because the problems tend to be treated sketchily, but mostly because the love itself is treated that way.
Julia, a roving female Don Juan, seems more of a fantasy than a reality. We see her from Laura's point of view, but we don't see much. Both with Julia and with Jane, who becomes a permanent partner, there is a certain amount of hugging and touching and longing; none of it explicit. It's not the explicitness we miss, though; it's the passion. Wolitzer seems able to convey only her characters' opinions about their passion; not the thing itself. It is as if she were interviewing them.
Indeed, once Laura settles down with Jane and moves to Long Island, her story becomes a kind of fictionalized version of the life-style columns of New York's principal newspaper. How does a gay couple plus child buy a home in the suburbs? What do you tell the real estate agent? What do you tell the neighbors? Do you take your lover to the school Spaghetti Night? What happens when your son's best friend drops him because of your home arrangements? How do you handle your former husband's concern that his son is growing up without a male role model? What do you say after the boy finds you and your lover on the couch?
What Laura does say, to all this, tends to sound pasteurized, as if passed by some fictional counseling body. "Do you know that Jane and I are lesbians?" she asks Ian, long after he plainly does know. "And you know that it's okay? That it just means that we love each other?"
Not all the language is that bland, though most of it is. Sometimes, Wolitzer can relax into wit. Of the tendency of the roving photographer to hitch up temporarily with domesticated partners, she writes: "Julia kept her own life empty and filled it with other people's clutter. And then, finally, when that clutter had begun to become her own as well, she backed away."
Wolitzer attempts to flesh out the characters around Laura--Jane, David, and Vanessa, David's second wife. She gives them biographies, concerns and feelings. She doesn't give them individuality; they are thumbnail sketches blown up large; Brobdingnagian thumbnails. The most real character is Ian; the more so, because of his puzzled uncommunicativeness. Least heard, most seen.
The intention of "Hidden Pictures," I think, is to show how a lesbian relationship can be as normal and American as apple pie. Whatever you think of the thesis, the novel's problem is the apple pie. I apologize for another culinary reference; but it is over-sweetened, and it sticks.