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Morality Tale A Novel Sylvia Brownrigg Counterpoint: 226 pp., $24

May 04, 2008|Louisa Thomas | Louisa Thomas is a writer living in Berlin.

It IS the temptation of every spouse to regard marriage as a morality tale, in which he or she is a hero navigating a landscape of virtue and vice. Of course, every marriage has two protagonists -- and, in an era of frequent divorce and remarriage, sometimes three or four. Each version of the story is often unfair to the others.

Sylvia Brownrigg's latest novel, "Morality Tale," is the story of a second wife. Our heroine here is unnamed, though her stepsons call her Pan. (Her nickname, ancient Greek for "all," signifies her as an everywoman.) She feels marginalized in her husband's version of the drama -- not to mention his first wife's.

In Pan's rendering, it is a tragicomic tale of woe told in chirpy tones: She was once a sad single girl with rosebud lips, until a slender man with strong arms appeared five years ago. He held a cappuccino and offered safety and warmth. And he needed rescue from a bad marriage. Alas, life together was not all he promised it would be.

Foremost among the villains: the first wife, with her helmet hair and "rather clever campaign of constant, low-grade morale crushing and money leeching," who has turned Pan's prince of a husband "into a foul-mouthed cliche." Her name is Theresa, but Pan and her husband call her "Dear Darling Terry," or "DDT."

Then there is the foul-mouthed cliche himself. Alan leaves his shoes in the hallway, complains about work and watches too much TV. His touch has become perfunctory; it turns out that married sex isn't as steamy as illicit sex.

In a self-pitying kind of way, Pan doesn't exempt herself from criticism. She alludes to her own "sordid histories" of betrayal. And besides, as she frequently reminds herself, she is the one who so foolishly believed her lover's assurances of protection and romance. (If only she had known the truth of what he was offering!)

Once, Pan was a dreamer -- someone who cared about metaphysics and cosmology. She began a "Dictionary of Betrayal" ("Nutrition -- Don't go on a strange diet. It looks suspicious"). Now, her thoughts revolve around her stepsons' carpools, laundry loads and dodging the wrath of DDT. Pan has not a single confidant -- no one to talk to, no one to laugh with, no one to listen to her.

Then one day a large, red-bearded envelope salesman named Richard walks into the stationery store where she works and spouts lines like "I enjoy looking at things from an angle. Thinking outside the box." This is one sensitive and philosophical man, Pan thinks. Soon, her quandary is apparent. She's married the wrong guy. She's been hoodwinked! Besides, she reminds us, hadn't Alan cheated on his first wife? ("I recalled that carousel of a saying. What goes around comes around.")

The novel opens mid-crisis. Alan has just discovered Pan sitting on a park bench holding hands with Richard. The flirtation hasn't gone further than that, but Alan goes ballistic. He commands her to banish Richard from her life and her thoughts, though of course she can think of little else. Husband and wife enter a state of uneasy detente.

Replaying her interactions with Richard and Alan and interrogating her actions, Pan is spirited, with a talent for caricature. She sharply dissects the plight of a second wife -- unsticking soggy Cheerios from the kitchen floor, detritus left by kids who aren't her own; listening to Alan and Theresa arguing over their children's schedules, "bartering presidents and heroes . . . (if you get Martin Luther King Day shouldn't I get George Washington?)."

Pan's first-person voice is sprightly but uneven and sometimes irritating. She employs the expansive vocabulary of an autodidact; "lacunae" and "iamb" jostle with the occasional "funner." She has a penchant for metaphors, epithets and definitions so intense that it comes off almost as a tic. An umbrella isn't an umbrella; it's a "thin many-tined protection against the elements." But she's capable of a nice turn of phrase: "the soured salt of preserve" or the "bloodhoundish" droop of a sad man who's been drinking.

Morality tales, however, are hard to pull off. They offer neither the simplicity of parable nor the complexity of fully realized human dilemma. Pan paints such a cartoonish cast that it's hard to believe she could possibly care for -- or be cared about by -- any of them. Even Pan's exchanges with Richard approach farce in their quasi-philosophical inflection. ("How impossible living around this bay would be if it weren't for the bridges, which are miraculous, touched by God, even, if you believe in that kind of thing, though in the mouths of commuters the constructs become merely curses." It's hard to tell whether Brownrigg is having fun with Pan or making fun of her.

Pan has something of the Wife of Bath to her -- she's feisty but essentially delusional. She treats Alan as badly as he treats her. And her wayward longings are hardly the stuff of sin (with the exception of a few imaginary kisses.) The person whom Richard keeps reminding her of is an old woman named Millie who took care of her when she was young -- a disconcerting memory if Pan's really fallen in love. But it's clear from the beginning that what Pan wants isn't a lover.

Surely, the moral she draws from her story -- that husbands and wives need to treat each other with regard -- is a worthy lesson. But it's the wrong lesson. She seems ignorant of a more apt conclusion: What a lonely person needs most is a friend.

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