Undercover: The Screw Turns in a Perfect Marriage (11/06/75)

Susan Braudy has written an unsettling book in Between Marriage and Divorce: A Woman’s Diary (Morrow, 252 pp., $7.95) and she may catch a lot of critical hell for it. It is one thing, after all, to put a slick fictional gloss on autobiography, as Erica Jong did in Fear of Flying, glamorizing your story as you tidy up the corners. It is a good deal riskier to reconstruct the breakup of a marriage without first making sure the house you put on display is fit for the guests.

Written in diary form, Brau­dy’s book begins as she is working on a magazine profile of a Cajun fiddler, who seduces her. Six years married and faithful to her husband “Paul,” a young New York professor, she pur­sues the affair—out of curiosity, pleasure, and what is at first a marginal sense of independence. She works hard to convince herself that her fling is (a) good for her (b) nonexistent (c) a shameful betrayal (d) irrelevant to her love for her husband and to their marriage, which all her friends consider “perfect” (anyone who has been married more than two years will recognize that one).

Later she begins a second affair, this time with a middle-aged academic rock critic, “John Schwartz.” With no formed intention of abandoning her husband she half pushes him together with another woman and then tortures herself with fantasies of their liaison. Finally she confronts her husband. Yes, he is in love with another woman, as she has not been with her lovers. She gets more than she bargained for, and the marriage cracks open. Braudy does not try to make herself likable in these pages, and often she is not. Her writing is unaffected. Her portraits of her husband and herself are so convincing that the two of them come off the page as complex individuals. As Braudy’s affairs unfold, you feel as if you are made a party to her husband’s cuckoldry, as if you are a friend who has been told a secret you would rather not have heard. I felt both implicated in Braudy’s actions and victimized by them; I didn’t like the feeling, but it drew me all the way into the book, changing what was an interest in her story into a kind of commitment to it.

This is a tribute to her writing (and it is ironic that Braudy begins her affair with “Schwartz” because she idolizes his writing; she is a better writer than he has ever thought of being). And though the sections detailing Braudy’s life after the breakup are less compelling than those preceding and during it—her emergence as a sexually aggressive, confident woman is persuasive, but it seems a little too pat, too predictable—the sentences jump when the book hits its crucial moments, as if Braudy knew she had to bear down hardest on those events most likely to surrender to cliché Most striking, perhaps, is her confrontation with her husband:

“I’ve always liked you very much [he tells her] but I never loved you.”

“You liar,” I bellow at him, raising my fist. “You goddamn fucking liar. You can’t rewrite my life. I love you. Don’t you think I need you?”

“Emily needs me more than you do,” he says stoutly… “And I’ve spent my last night masturbating… Yes, masturbating because you were too depressed or preoccupied and didn’t feel like screwing.” Shocked, I keep watching his face. I feel nauseated; he looks like someone I’ve never met… “Don’t you think I love you, Paul?”… “Emily loves more sides of me than you do,” he recites, sounding like a robot who’s just learned a new series of key phrases.

Finally, they go to bed, Braudy exhausted and raging, her husband full of an elation she cannot endure. In the dark she says:

“Paul, it’s probably too late. I just want you to have a good life.” I am victorious. I can still hurt him. He tightens his mouth and walks to the bathroom. I am alone. When I said, “Have a good life, Paul,” I really got him. I got him with that one.

There, in that staccato repetition, is Braudy’s hold on her story, on her reader, and on her strength as a writer.

I am less impressed with the inspirational/new-woman aspects of this book than are the people quoted on the dust jacket; the story is too sharply told to fit a neat, ideologically proper purpose. And it would be unfortunate if Between Marriage and Divorce were treated simply as a woman’s book. As a soap opera that exploded, it takes you around its turns faster than you could have expected to go, and at its best crosses up whatever expectations you might bring to it.


CAVEAT EMPTOR

America in the Movies by Michael Wood (Basic Books). Wood is a fine critic in the pages of the New York Review, but save for the first chapter this is a remarkably pedestrian interpretation of classic Hollywood cinema. Wood writes with the enthusiasm of a man with wonderful secrets to tell, but you’ll be surprised by what he has to say only if you prefer sleeping

Decadence: Radical Nostal­gia, Narcissism, and Decline in the Seventies by Jim Hougan (Morrow). Thought for the day: “Nero correctly understood that beauty, music and irony can coexist with disintegration, that the inevitable can be accompanied on the violin.” Perhaps the stupidest book I have ever read.

Jack Carter and the Law by Ted Lewis (Knopf). You can tell Lewis is hard-boiled; he’s the kind of crime writer who thinks commas are for sissies.

Winter Kills by Richard Condon (Dell paperback). Concerning the unraveling of the conspiracy behind the assassination of President Tim Kegan (read JFK), with a plot so complicated it must have cost Con­don a fortune in graph paper, a villain any thriller fan will guess in the first fifty pages, and the most intricately ironic, clichéd and ludicrous ending since the invention of the sentence.


Rolling Stone, November 6, 1975


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