Despite the provocative title, the two central characters in this grimly funny first novel meet at a crematorium, a clear sign that you shouldn't expect a titillating boudoir romp.
Though Norman and Isobel are near neighbors and contemporaries, their paths never cross until a remote relative of both families dies. We're in England here, and class distinctions can still override proximity to keep young people apart. Isobel's father is a minor writer and translator who spends his days isolated in a musty study while his daughter slavishly serves him. Norman's mother derives her entire knowledge of the world from tabloids and telly; a virtual guarantee that the parents' paths will never cross.
Nothing less than Death, that great leveler, could possibly bring these two families together, though the offspring have more in common than their divergent backgrounds could possibly indicate.
Norman is not only hopelessly in love with his mother, but a narcissist to boot, given to lying outside in a deck chair tanning himself, no small trick in the London suburbs.
Isobel, for her part, has an Electra complex more extreme than anything in the Freudian case books, a state of mind complicated by masochistic fantasies in which she dreams of lacerating her body with razor blades and shaving her head "down to the blue scalp" to attract her father's attention. (This might be as good a place as any to mention that the author is Sigmund Freud's great-granddaughter, a bit of information the publishers consider highly significant.) In any case, are Norman and Isobel a match made in heaven, or what?
After the smitten Isobel orchestrates a second "chance" encounter at the corner market, they have a brief and forgettable adventure that results in Isobel's pregnancy. Norman's mother would like nothing better than to be relieved of her excessively adoring son so she can get on with her rambunctious affair with one Mr. Green, but Norman drags his feet about moving out, assuming, with some reason, that marriage to Isobel would curtail his favorite activities--lifting weights, dressing up, eating, and having his mum rub suntan oil into his muscles. To please his mother, he does make a perfunctory marriage proposal, easily overcoming his disappointment when Isobel rejects him.
Pregnant out of wedlock, the wan and dreary Isobel succeeds in arousing a bit more interest from her self-centered father. For the first time in her life, she's shown some spirit. Before she really has a chance to enjoy this altered state of affairs, the baby is born amid Grand Guignol imagery that not only stretches the author's descriptive powers but partially justifies the title.
Irony of ironies, the father who paid no heed whatever to his own infant daughter turns into the most doting of grandfathers, thereby depriving Isobel of the love she so yearned for and adding to her misery by making her jealous of her own baby.
Norman's mother is persuaded by Mr. Green to marry. The romance, if one can apply so delicate a noun to so coarse a connection, effectively provides the comic relief this bleak tale demands.
Graphic, terse, and superbly suited to her material, Boyt's style lends this chilling domestic drama considerably more distinction than the plot implies. Without ever deserving either our affection or compassion, Norman and Isobel, Sylvia and her Mr. Green, Isobel's father and his hearty mistress manage to engage our appalled attention.
Boyt not only avoids the deadfalls inherent in the psychopathology, but succeeds in virtually reinventing classic tragedy as trendy satire, tacitly acknowledging her debt to her great-grandfather along the way. He might not be amused, but he'd be fascinated.
Next: Carolyn See reviews "The Gates of Paradise" by Gwyneth Cravens (Ticknor & Fields).