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A Novel to Take to Your Bed By : PERFECT TOGETHER By Nora Johnson ; (William Abrahams/Dutton: $19.95; 336 pp.)

August 25, 1991|Joyce Walter | Walter is the author of "The Hallie Lawrence Story," a novel

After a bad experience years ago (I read Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying"), I vowed never again to read fiction by living, female writers whose heroines take to their beds, eat food from cardboard containers, resume a smoking or drinking habit, all because a man done them wrong. It's not that I suffer from "Thelma and Louise" envy--a craving for let's-kill-all-the-men stories--nor is it because Anna Karenina said it all and wore better clothes.

It's just that we don't need fiction to make the acquaintance of kvetches . "Perfect Together," by Nora Johnson, is a take-to-my-bed book. But this vow-breaker proved a recommendable experience because Nora Johnson is a good writer.

Johnson, author of nine books, has created her heroine, Fran Letterman Morse, from the inside out. She is not a caricature as was Erica Jong's grossly unambiguous Isadora Wing. Fran is aware of her shortcomings, but muses over them with bitter irony instead of repulsive self-pity. Therefore, when Fran's man does her wrong, we can empathize with her rage, feel it, find the humor in it, and become concerned for her.

Fran and husband Charlie have been having a wonderful life, one of those that find husband and wife sharing the fast track, equally productive, equally respectful of one another. They even have good sex. Charlie is a physicist, Fran a feisty lawyer. By age 35, Fran is caving in to the agenda that something unthinkable will come her way if she does not reproduce. For the next five years she tries to conceive, but "as the rusty spots appeared with maddening regularity, I began to blame myself for what I saw was failure." By 40, conception not only is proving allusive, it also is probably not a real possibility.

Fran and Charlie go so far as to purchase a house in a good school district, move to this fine-place-to-rear-a-child, and commute to their city jobs. After six months of living out of boxes, they decide to hire a housekeeper, and Ellie Ferguson enters their lives. Fran tells us: "Here sat Charlie and I in our city darks, our expensive car, our grim faces and sour devious minds, our heads full of ozone and old women with cancer. We couldn't help smiling at her. Who wouldn't?"

Good question. Ellie Ferguson is a veritable spring-day, working-class milkmaid of a young woman with two small daughters of her own, a much regretted abortion and a husband who has abandoned her. Ellie arrives with a take-to-your-bed situation of her own, which she struggles with, in working-class fashion, by working .

Fran struggles with the possibility of quitting her job, lest it is the stress that is sabotaging parenthood and not her own ambivalence. Fran's background is quasi-European, with a sophisticated education and an expatriate mother who lives in Venice.

Ellie suffers from chronic innocence and Fran feels compelled to champion this girl, trying to believe that she thinks of Ellie not as a servant but as another woman who happens to work as a housekeeper, another woman who mentions "her easy fertility almost apologetically." This cockeyed irony is not lost on either of them.

It isn't surprising that Ellie is soon pregnant. Fran, the legal eagle, feels she must have the facts concerning this conception. Unfortunately, they are not facts for which she is prepared. Charlie is the father. Charlie wants Ellie to have the baby; Charlie wants to rear the baby as his and Fran's. He feels what's done is done, if Fran will just be reasonable. Charlie is using male logic, which while solution-oriented is applied with the empathy of a sledgehammer. It is actually beyond him why Fran is upset; he has promised the affair is over, he just wants his baby.

This is classic take-to-your-bed material if there ever was any. I have not given away the plot. All this is established, economically, very early on because Johnson's novel concerns the story of three people--wife, husband, maid--living in this problematic triangle.

As Fran, Charlie and Ellie contemplate solutions, our narrator's biting tone reflects the flailing efforts of people trying to be what they are not, people who never wanted to change in the first place.

When the baby arrives, Fran's maternal instincts consist of little other than an awareness of baby Monty, who is "like a TV set that wouldn't turn off"; but Fran always suspected this shortcoming in herself. Charlie, on the other hand, whose male vanity was reflected in his desire for fatherhood, finds he also is estranged from paternal feelings. He is the modern male who seems to fall easily into househusband role, only to find that babies are not as eager to accept logical solutions as fathers are willing to give them. This can cause a damaging blow to the male ego. In this case, the damage is severe, and as the final parenting arrangements are struggled with, it is tragedy that makes the final determination.

"Perfect Together" offers a heroine that takes-to-her-bed with tremendous self-irony and a legitimate motive. This is not happening because the guy didn't call. This is not an essay in maudlin despair, caused by the over-empowerment of a male. Despite its strong humorous tone, it is not a piece of comic fluff. Fran is a heroine who can't be suffocated, not because of what she becomes but because of what she already is.

This is refreshing, but no accident. Nora Johnson is a good writer.

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