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Happy Endings Are Not Allowed Here

WICKED WOMEN; by Fay Weldon; Atlantic Monthly Press, 312 pages, $23


Fay Weldon is a safecracking writer, nimble-fingered, glamorous, arch and above it all. Some of the world's most venerable institutions--marriage, money and class--have been violated in her novels and short stories. And do not think that being an American reader somehow excuses you from her telescopic insight into human recklessness. The British may be on the front lines, but it is human nature she is gunning for.

Weapons include cynicism, humor and nonchalance. Victims in this new collection of stories about relationships are mothers, daughters, wives and sluts.

Let's start with mothers. In "Red on Black," Weldon writes: "Maria had been exultant when her mother left home. . . . Mother gone, so what? If a man has a daughter who loves him, what can he need with a wife? All his wife did was deny and deride him." And from mommy dearest in the story "Valediction" comes a sentiment characteristic of this collection: "I do not see the bearing of children as of any particular value. I don't even want my children to be happy: I just want them to keep out of my hair, which I suppose is more or less the same thing." There goes the sacred mother-daughter bond--debunked, crushed.

And there is more "Mad Max"-style emotional nihilism. As always in Weldon's fiction, men treat their wives abominably: "I'd rather have her than you," says X to Y in "In the Great War (II)." "So Y killed herself. X was sorry. But he didn't blame himself. In the Great War, men simply didn't. X turned cold and cruel to Ellen and her child. 'Your fault!' he said. 'I can never truly love you now, or anyone.' "

The children of these sacred unions are full of hatred and the desire for revenge, like young Weena Dodds in "End of the Line," who systematically plots to pry a man on the wrong side of success from his loving and patient wife (who snips at him now and then but does actually love him). Many of the children in these stories are gay. Of the women who contemplate suicide over homosexuality, Weldon writes: "The child who's left must live out the life sentence imposed by the mother. Few children truly survive the suicide of mothers: bodies go on living, but the mother has taken back the gift of life." Some gift.

As for wives, they are just fools, for the most part. Pierre, in "Love Amongst the Artists," warns against being "dragged back into the Hell of Domesticity, which is the Death of Art. . . . The artist's duty is to all mankind; he must break free of the chains of convention."

For a brief moment, I allowed myself to develop a theory about older cultures fostering more cynical literature. I thought the merciless cynicism of these stories was uniquely British. But the themes are too universal, the relationships too familiar. And if there's one thing Weldon highlights, it is the fine line between cynicism and wisdom.

"A Good Sound Marriage" is the most straightforward story in the collection, in which a young pregnant wife sees the ghost of her practical grandmother, who tells her to stop crying about her relationship because it's bad for the baby. The apparition tells her granddaughter: "I predict for you a good strong marriage in which there will never be peace--for who wants peace?--but much gratification." She wisely counsels her granddaughter that "all good marriages attract the saboteur. Women will creep up on him, sly and beckoning." But the apparition abandons the young wife, saying that young women would rather "weep, and shriek, and squirm in the present."

So, what we have is not a collection of stories about wicked women who are having a hell of a good time flouting convention. We have a collection of stories in which wicked women are punished by loneliness and good women are also punished by loneliness. We need another option, fast.

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