Fiction

A socialite, a scandal, a voyeur

 
 
Memoirs of a Marriage. Louis Begley. Nan A. Talese. 208 pages. $25.95.
Memoirs of a Marriage. Louis Begley. Nan A. Talese. 208 pages. $25.95.

This is Louis Begley’s 10th novel, but I’m afraid it fails to live up to his best work. Memories of a Marriage follows the bedroom shenanigans of the smart set, a world Begley knows well. He enjoyed a long and distinguished career at a powerful Wall Street law firm (a busy man, he didn’t publish his first novel until he was 57). But this European-born Jew — a child survivor of the Holocaust — writes about WASPs from a bemused distance. This time, however, his proven formula falls flat: all-too-familiar characters speak labored expository dialogue in a thin, uninvolving plot.

The novel takes place in 2003, in the early months of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, a deepening quagmire our narrator, a respected novelist named Philip, opposes. Politics-averse readers need not worry, however; the Bush administration stays in the background. Begley is more interested in the private than the public.

Life is winding down for Philip. An elderly widower who long ago lost his only child, he is nonetheless at peace with himself and the world. But one night, he bumps into an old friend. In the 1960s, Lucy Snow was a promiscuous debutante who scandalized her family by marrying Thomas, a working-class kid who eventually rose to prominence as an investment banker. The marriage collapsed after several years, and Thomas died in an accident while on vacation with his second wife. But Lucy still holds a bitter grudge against the man she calls a “monster.”

Philip is surprised. Thomas always seemed to be “a fine example of the American dream come true.” He decides to investigate. Like the unseen reporter in Citizen Kane, he goes around listening to eyewitnesses. In the end, he discovers that Lucy has not been open about her own monstrousness.

Unfortunately, Lucy’s story is just not that interesting. Even a sadomasochistic relationship with a right-wing journalist can’t spice things up. The rich are different from you and me, Hemingway observed (and Philip paraphrases). But the superficialities Begley documents are hardly new. As Roger Ebert wrote, “Today’s fictional characters do in a paragraph what Victorians spend 500 pages living down.” Begley’s characters act and sound like Victorians, not moderns.

As for his prose, no one will ever spot a solecism. But the tone is a bit starchy. Everybody speaks in complete sentences. Begley never places quotation marks around his dialogue, a needless affectation. I have never believed in showing, not telling; but here Begley does too much of the latter, not enough of the former.

If you are curious about Begley, buy About Schmidt, Mistler’s Exit and The Man Who Was Late. These are artful studies in folly and conceit. Leave Memories of a Marriage alone.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.

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