The usual theme for the novel of modern manners is adultery--the causes, effects, repercussions of infidelity on marriage. In "A Craving for Women," Sybil Claiborne has, so to speak, stood this premise on its head: What happens when stable, polygamous marriages are threatened by monogamy? She posits a man happily married to seven wives, visiting each in turn according to a conjugal calendar. The marriages are rewarding, the wives are friends and co-workers; their congeniality and cooperation, in fact, is given the reader axiomatically, without exploration or caveat.
The family (and much is made of this term throughout the novel) lives and works in New York City. Helen, Saul's first wife, is the natural choice for narrator. Although childless herself, Helen functions throughout as Mama--selfless, diplomatic, bountiful--maintaining the conjugal calendar and holding the potluck brunch every Sunday where all the family gathers.
The novel opens at one of these brunches, just before monogamy, as it were, rears its ugly head. Claiborne lovingly details her quirky characters, the gallery of wives: lawyer Evelyn, flaky Beryl, shaky Connie, woodworkers Jen and Kelly (united seemingly at the wrist and ankles) and the newest wife, Valery, a would-be actress with the style (but not the charm) of Winnie-the-Pooh's friend, Eeyore. Indeed, Helen has need of her diplomatic skills to deal with this eccentric crew as well as with Saul, "the last of the romantics." Perhaps, but a difficult and self-serving man for all that.