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Kiss and tell

The Woman in the Row Behind A Novel Francoise Dorner Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter Other Press: 128 pp., $14 paper

September 03, 2006|Kai Maristed | Kai Maristed is the author of "Broken Ground," "Out After Dark" and "Fall."

SOMETIMES you can pretty much tell a book by its cover. Or at least get a good taste of what's inside. At only 128 pages, Francoise Dorner's "The Woman in the Row Behind" -- the 2004 winner of France's coveted Goncourt Prize for a first novel -- is slim and supple, like a parisienne subsisting on Evian water and cigarettes. Red, pink and black dominate the cover, which shows rows of shadowy theater seats along the top; below, superimposed on a flowery Chinese motif, is a luscious babe in a tightly cinched shiny black trench coat. Her head, though, is thoroughly hidden by the title band. Who is this masked woman? She's Nina, the woman at the center of Dorner's confessional, first-person narrative.

Suppose you are a young wife whose existence, up to the surprising moment when a man actually asks you to marry him, has not exactly been a bowl of cherries: You were a by-blow, conceived at a spa, you have yet to meet your oblivious bourgeois progenitor, and the mother who packed you off at a young age to the cheapest available Catholic boarding school drives you mad with her egocentric whining. And now, suppose your husband (with whom you share long hours at his newspaper kiosk) already seems to take you for granted, drifting off in front of the TV while you sit by, uselessly decked out in baby-doll pj's? Suppose you then find out that while he claims to be alone at the movies on his day off, he's actually kissing another woman in the anonymous gloom of the theater?

What would you do? Try to experiment with the arts of seduction, taking tips perhaps from the porno mags you see men slavering over at the kiosk? Don a skimpy plastic trench coat and a black wig, and attempt to even the score by ministering to a big-shot politician as a call girl? All this failing to rekindle the marriage, would you go so far as to attempt to murder your rival? Understandable. A person can let herself be pushed only so far. But now, what if the exotic Other Woman, the succubus who unleashes your cloddish husband's passion and imagination, happens to be -- you?

Whew! It's a nifty twist. High concept, as they say in the movie trade, and never mind some niggling doubts as to plausibility. (Would a guy not recognize his wife's mouth, her kiss, even if she were drenched in cheap perfume? Would the incognito wife take the risk?) In any case, the cover gets right the campy, sleazy, almost autoerotic atmosphere of certain key scenes, as well as a lot of the action -- because Nina, in her drive to inspire desire, does in fact succeed in seducing her own man and a few others to boot. It's a success she will regret terribly.

Careening from one rash decision to the next, Nina finds herself waist deep in a steady stream of life's very bad jokes. At one point, the book's only truly likable character keels over dead from a heart attack while playing cards. In a scene straight out of Moliere, the doctor arrives and in his confusion takes the blood pressure of Nina's imperiously pleading mother. "He looked baffled ... then released the arm band and said reassuringly, 'You've almost got the pressure of a young girl.' "

" 'Why almost?' replied my mother, grabbing his sleeve with unexpected force. 'You can tell me the truth ... '

" 'Mom, he's here for Henriette.'

"She pinched her lips and he was free to declare the death."

Told in a deadpan voice ably rendered by veteran translator Adriana Hunter, Dorner's tale abounds with snappy visuals and dark situation comedy. No wonder, as Dorner is a well-known movie and TV actress who has made a second career of writing television scripts and screenplays. But "The Woman in the Row Behind" hardly bothers with what novels (as compared to plays) generally do best: i.e., unfold subtlety in character, deepen story with subplot. In short, while one might doubt whether "The Woman in the Row Behind" stands up fully as a novel, it succeeds beautifully as tragic farce. *

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