While best known for his engaging personal essay collections (Being with Children, etc.), Lopate is also the author of two novels (including The Rug Merchant); here he turns in a pair of lively novellas. Taking the form of a self-conscious diary, The Stoic's Marriage opens as Gordon, a pretentious intellectual, records the perfection of his marriage to Rita, a former home aide from the Philippines. When her relatives arrive unexpectedly, his postures of generosity toward his wife's family make his farcical unreliability as a narrator abundantly clear. Eleanor, or, The Second Marriage offers a bird's-eye view of a middle-aged couple's bourgeois complacency as they host a party, complete with gourmet food, a Charlie Chaplin screening (from real film, natch) and urbane banter. The characters seem pulled from a lifestyle issue of New York magazine, and a shattering secret, when revealed, doesn't have much to push against—but that's Lopate's point. The novella form tends to work against these tales, which feel like underdeveloped novels, but Lopate gets in some good jabs at the chattering classes. (Sept.)
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All marriages are a gamble: how well do you need to understand your partner before you jump in the game? In this pair of novellas, Lopate examines the question first with humor, and then with melancholy. In the opening one, a middle-aged academic with a private income marries the Filipino nurse�s aide who cared for his dying mother. True, he knows almost nothing about her past, but does that really matter, if he is madly in love? In the second, a middle-aged couple, whose town house in Brooklyn is perpetually filled with good food, good wine, and good conversation, consider themselves well armed against the threats of their previous relationships, but do they know one another�s secrets�and, for that matter, should they? Lopate brings considerable psychological insight to these questions but fails to make us feel the risks in our gut. We may be titillated by this high-stakes game, but we have no difficulty walking away from the table.