He is a rapidly rising junior executive in an investment firm. She paints. He rises early to beat traffic and goes to bed early as well, falling asleep more often than not with a report in his hands. Sometimes, in the morning, she is awakened by the sound of the door closing quietly behind him.
When they met, in college, he was interested in art history, in ideas. He worked as a waiter, back then. For a few happy years after graduation, they lived on almost nothing. But then he gathered up all his loose ends, did an MBA, plunged into the life of the Wall Street firm that hired him--and changed. She moved down to New York with him, of course, down from the New England town where they had fallen in love. She could do her painting anywhere, they told each other, and now they would have money besides.
When their daughter was born, it seemed only natural that the larger part of the child care should fall to her. After all, she was home anyway. And the little girl and her mother developed a rare and special relationship, full of the spirit of play, full of her own love of color, nature and discovery. Still, she was always careful to make an event of the evening meal, when all three of them were together again. A little girl needs a loving father as well as a loving mother.
On the surface, they seemed a picture-perfect family. Beneath the surface--well, beneath the surface there lay her vague frustration that her career as an artist and illustrator wasn't going anywhere. Was it a real career or a toy career? she wondered. Financially, it was only too obvious that they were living on his earnings, not on hers. True, they weren't the kind of couple to whom money mattered all that much. True, it wasn't a pressing issue. Still, it troubled her that some days she scarcely did any real work in her studio any more. What was happening to her?
And then there were his comments on her work. Not that they were unkind comments, but there was something so analytic about them. She had to admit that he saw things. And what he saw came from more than just the art history courses that he remembered: It came also from his analytic temperament. But this scarcely helped. Was he to surpass her even in the one area she could call her own?
Complaints, all of these, but as marital complaints go, modest and manageable. Perhaps nothing would ever have changed had she not met a man in the park one day, a writer, a parent like herself, standing near the sandbox where his little boy was playing with her little girl. They spoke. He had written a children's book and needed an illustrator. He looked through her portfolio. She read his story. They liked what they saw and decided to collaborate.
And you can guess the rest.
Except that you can't guess the rest, not in "Say You Want Me" (Soho: $17.95), Richard Cohen's poignantly imagined, perfectly realized novel of two-career family life in the 1980s. First of all, I have misled you to make a point. It isn't she who paints in this novel. He does. And it isn't he who is the rising star on Wall Street. She is. The roles are reversed, but, deep down, of course, the sexes aren't: They can't be. When he is unfaithful to her, and he is, she doesn't take it like a man: She takes it like a woman. When he minds the baby, he does so as only a man could. There are no "Mr. Mom" gimmicks here, no slapstick. The book explodes in beauty and pain when things that must change mix and ignite with the things that can't.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot? Professionally, I pass the year making strangers of books that might like to be my friends. My job is to pack them off for other people to read, not to read them myself. But sometimes, when all the important books have been packed off, I pick up one of the leftovers. "Say You Want Me" was of that inglorious number, and I lift a cup of kindness to it as the odd year flickers out. It is the book that I most regret not seeing reviewed in the Los Angeles Times Book Review in 1988.
There may be nothing especially path-breaking about its techniques. A demanding critic might find it a little ordinary. All I know is that I started reading it at midnight one night and read straight through until 4 a.m. If you have ever lost a love or loved a child, you might like to read it too.