Young Wives, Olivia Goldsmith

Harper Collins, 2000, 512 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-107553-2

Even trashy authors have their days off.

I haven’t been shy, in the past, in expressing my satisfaction with Olivia Goldsmith’s oeuvre. From her debut with the revenge fantasy The First Wives’ Club to her latter send-ups of entire industries, Goldsmith has always aimed for the lowest common denominator, but with such calculated shrewdness that it was difficult to be overly critical of her cheerfully moralistic bent, or receptive to accusations of slight misandry.

After Young Wives, I’m not so sure.

The first strike against this novel is its similarity to The First Wives’ Club. Once again, we have a trio of women betrayed by their husbands, teaming up to take revenge. While the specifics are different (among other things, these wives are not ridiculously rich), they’re close enough that another writer would have been tarred with accusations of “rip-off!” had they tried the same thing. But, hey, if you can’t steal from yourself, who can you steal from?

But the next strike against Young Wives is the banality of its premise. Books like Fashionably Late and The Bestseller skewered industries such as (respectively) fashion and publishing, while The First Wives’s Club had an implicit element of originality in its depiction of “First Wives” commonalities, Young Wives has none of that. One wife is cheated upon by her upwardly mobile husband; another struggles to support her children despite a lazy partner; a third discovers that her husband is implicated in shady activities. Ordinary stories, all, without much in terms of unifying force. Rather than focus her satiric pen against something concrete, Goldsmith scatters herself in multiple directions.

This, perhaps inevitably, leads to the third major problem with the novel, which is its lopsided pacing, which begins at a snail’s pace and then only picks up very late in the novel. The disproportionate length of “Ring One” (303 pages) versus “Ring Two” (40) is emblematic of the problems. Heck; one wife doesn’t even get discover that her husband is a dirty scoundrel until halfway through the novel. While it is true that tepid pacing has always been a problem with Goldsmith’s novels, this one is worse than other given the lack of focus: At least books like The Bestseller could fill up the first third with details about the publishing industry.

These three strikes duly noted, a lot of stuff about Young Wives suddenly become harder to gloss over. The misandry, obviously: In addition to the trite and explicit epigrams (“Men are mostly dogs and marital diplomacy is all about saying ‘nice doggie’ until you find a damn rock” [P.305]), the constant barrage of failed marriages in this book is somewhat disheartening. (All of these failures, alas, are the men’s fault) I’m a cynic, damn it, but some things are too depressing. Constant “dogs are better than men because…” jokes and the harsh revenges don’t help the atmosphere, and neither do the caricatures taking place of characterizations when comes the time to define the male antagonists. I’m a bit surprised about this, really, because I’ve never had such a problem with Goldsmith’s other books: This one just rubbed me the wrong way.

There are other problems here and there: The funding of a lazy husband’s lavish divorce lawyer is never explained. Some expressions are repeated too many times. Contrivances abound, from abrupt wife-beating to a custody trial that simply rings false. Goldsmith never convinces in describing characters that are black and/or poor. Ironically enough, this book concludes on an unlawful act, leaving an unpleasant taste that makes me want to take back everything nasty I’ve said about Goldsmith’s moralistic universes.

In short, this has to be my least favourite of Goldsmith’s novel so far. Now it remains to be seen whether this is a fluke, or if the other novels I haven’t read from her are as disappointing. Oh, please let this be a fluke, a day off, a “message” novel that went awry…

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