What we have here, in this brittle novel of contemporary urban life, are five characters in search of a plot.
Former college friends, now in their early '30s--Ella, Stephen, Cynthia, Ave and Burton--live in each other's pockets; their hermetic little circle enlarged by Frank, an older, married photographer with whom Ella is having a passionate affair.
The adventure doesn't quite qualify as "mutual" adultery, because Ella isn't married to Stephen, although she's been living with him for almost 10 years.
Stephen is a composer, presently at work on an innovative version of "Othello" to be called "Otella" and performed in drag. When we are finally treated to an account of this project, we learn that Desdemona has been renamed Desmond in order to set up a pun about "Desmond moaning."
Perhaps \o7 travesty\f7 might describe the venture more accurately, if less kindly.
Burton is also a musician, a conductor and the only character to have a day job practicing his art. Ella works part time at an advertising agency, although she fancies herself a serious painter. Her sole subject is the sky. Cynthia is an alcoholic, non-performing violinist with disabling but unspecified emotional problems.
Ave, the least sympathetic of the sorry lot, supports herself by dealing cocaine, a vocation that leaves her with more free time than the rest of the crew, proving the adage that the devil finds work for idle hands. Although Burton rather passively loves Cynthia, he's seduced by Ave, who treats him even more shabbily than Ella treats Stephen.
Frank, Ella's married lover, is no bargain either. Meeting him at his squalid downtown studio, she notices his "scuttling walk," "big yellow teeth" and his resemblance to a popular movie personage known to be "cocksure, self-delighting and elusive." He's the ideal mate for the sluttish Ave, but unfortunately they never meet.
Author Anna Shapiro writes vividly and explicitly about sex, a lucky thing since her characters seem to have only the most shadowy lives once they're up and dressed.
Without real jobs, with no family background or friends aside from one another, they inhabit a social and professional vacuum, essentially existing only in bed or in the various less comfortable places they choose for their sexual encounters.
When they're not so engaged, they're describing their experiences to the reader. Although the men are relatively taciturn, Ella, the chief spokesperson, makes up for everyone else's reticence.
The continual sexual activity gives the novel a curiously dated quality, as if it had been written in an earlier and more carefree decade, then put away to await a reversal of the counter-revolution, a turn-about that hasn't happened yet.
The two men, Stephen and Burton, seem considerably more congenial than the women--garrulous self-involved Ella, poor pathetic Cynthia and thoroughly despicable Ave. (Frank, who's merely peripheral, doesn't really count.) Still, that's not saying much.
Abandoned by Ella, Stephen finds a measure of consolation with a woman named Melody, who apparently appreciates the qualities Ella had disdained.
Although Burton was a pushover for the manipulative machinations of Ave, neglecting the desperately needy Cynthia, he doesn't deserve the dreadful punishment in store for him. Neither does Cynthia.
If "Life & Love, Such as They Are" is meant as a cautionary tale, the message is simply that life isn't fair. But most of us already know that.
Although the author has an agreeably tart wit and a highly developed sense of irony, she's expended her talent upon a set of characters who never deserve the attention lavished upon them.