"I think of him at night . . ." screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein opens her second novel, "Ex-Lover." "It astounds me that I'm here and he's not. At times like this I cannot imagine my stomach without his pressing against it. . . ."
Clearly, we are meant to read this novel as a memento mori. We are also meant to read it as an elegy, a long goodby to a love that's "dead and gone" as they say in country and Western songs. This may be difficult since the book has more to do with "cheatin' hearts."
Bergstein's heroine is Jessie Gerard, a "Playwright's Horizon playwright," who is happily married to Sam, an engineer. Jessie has recently suffered a number of losses--a rash of family deaths, the loss of a best friend to suicide, and the loss of her own creativity to writer's block. In an attempt at recovery, she has undertaken an assignment "for the worst magazine I read cover to cover."
She thinks she's slumming.
Her assignment is to cover a movie being shot on the streets of Manhattan. She covers more than that. Midway through the shoot, she takes a lover, the ex-lover of the title. He's got a fatal disease and she's got a fatal attraction. When a certain someone is found hacked to pieces, the phrase, "He's to die for" takes on a literal ring. We've got a plethora of suspects--among them the soon-to-be ex-lover. Given her killer prose, the playwright-heroine is not exactly above suspicion, either. After all, she does fantasize about her husband, ". . . with a sudden bite, crunch, could tear, destroy him. . . ."
Yes, that's our heroine . . . and she likes him.
Although the book's dust jacket describes it as a "thriller," the term "chiller" might be more accurate. "My blood ran cold" is an understandable readerly response to Gerard's cold-blooded descriptions of "lovers" past and present. For all her artistic credentials, Gerard is essentially a gutter fighter. Recalling the theater director she slept with on her way up--and again on his way back down--she reports:
"I was so full of throbbing expectation and careful notation that I scarcely noticed how indifferent it was . . . He came back years later. He needed me for his career, and that made him much more fervent in my bed."
Some of the nastier surprises in "Ex-Lover" spring from character development, not plot. Fighting with an actress who won't make a timely commitment to one of her plays, our playwright snaps, ". . . I can't wait for you a year for the play. It's about a woman in peak childbearing years."
As a heroine, Jessie Gerard is so relentlessly self-involved, so narcissistically self-centered, you begin to gather that the book is really about how lovable she is--not about whom she loves. How can she really love anyone when the whole point of focus is whether or not they love her?
Describing her dead lover, playwright Gerard muses, "My face grows warm to his look and I smile back, think I know what he is thinking watching me . . ."
Describing her initial meeting with Sam, her husband, Gerard again sees the encounter in very self-referential terms, "When I first saw Sam I said, 'Oh, I'll be all right.' "
Perhaps not coincidentally, she suffers from myopia and wears thick glasses, although she's got a fantasy to go with them: ". . . The thicker the glasses, the more inevitable it is that one of them will paw my backbone with his index finger and say, 'You know, under those big glasses, you could be a lovely woman.' "
With a focus as large as her talent, Bergstein could be a lovely writer. Instead, she has confined herself to that newest and nastiest literary genre, "Kiss and Yell," unfortunately a particular favorite among New York literary ladies.
As a genre, Kiss and Yell is characterized by the wrongs done to its heroines who are very special and should not be treated so badly. Villains tend to be ex-husbands or ex-lovers. Characters tend to be thinly disguised players in the novelist's own lives. Art bears such a close resemblance to life it seems Xeroxed. "Venting" is a primary function of Kiss and Yell. Evening the score--personally or professionally--is another. Psychologists of the "Get It Out" school would surely approve--especially since they often appear as minor, but sympathetic, characters.
Hell hath no fury like a writer scorned. Gifted writers Erica Jong, Ellen Schwaam and Nora Ephron, did not mince words, just meat, in describing their unhappy marriages. Retaliatory affairs would have seemed like mercy killings compared to the character assassinations accomplished with their poisoned pens. No wonder the pen is mightier than the sword. What swordsman could ignore the possibility of bad reviews?
Central to the successful practice of the Kiss and Yell genre is a withering sexual preoccupation on the part of our heroines. Former studio executive Susan Braudy, who numbers several prominent film makers on her romantic resume, skewered them (or their body double facsimiles) thoroughly in her book, "What the Movies Made Me Do."