The First Wives’ Club, Olivia Goldsmith

Poseidon Press, 1992, 441 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-74693-6

As a science-fiction geek, a techno-nerd, a cynic, heck, a young man, I’m not exactly the poster-perfect fan for Olivia Goldsmith’s oeuvre. But look closer: Not only will I admit a deep romantic streak, but Goldsmith’s books aren’t quite your usual run-of-the-mill romantic fiction for women.

All of the reasons why are obvious in The First Wives Club, Goldsmith’s first published novel. (and the one most likely to be remembered given its status as a mildly successful film back in 1996) All the ingredients that would later surface in what I’ve read of hers (from Fashionably Late to The Bestseller) are all there: the frank language, the adult content, the heavy-handed morality, the use of strong female protagonists, the delightful prose style… For a novel, it’s a pretty good read. For a first novel it’s even more impressive.

The main dramatic arc (though it would be more appropriate to speak of a comic arc) is straight female-empowerment stuff: Dumped by their husbands for younger, more vapid second wives, our heroic trio decides to get mad and get even. Add to that the new romantic interests of the trio and their ex-husbands, the usual gallery of helpful secondary characters (including the de-rigueur flamboyant homosexual confidante) and you’ve got a cast of dozens with plenty of potential for social satire. There’s a “no trophy” icon embedded in the binding of the Pantheon Press hardcover edition, and it effectively summarizes the take-no-prisoner attitude of the protagonists. Hell hath no fury…

Some may be tempted to describe the book as man-hating propaganda. But those tedious pundits would probably be the kind of people to protest the oppression of the modern male, and you won’t get two guesses as to what I think of those people. (Or why they’d be better off in self-assertion therapy.) The truth is that the Wives’ revenge would have been useless if their ex-husbands hadn’t all been crooks and perverts. Sicking the IRS one someone is useless unless there’s real financial trickery involved, right? Painting the antagonists as out-and-out villains may not be especially subtle nor realistic, (nor does it reflect well on our poor heroic trio; what the heck were they thinking when they married these guys?) but it’s not gratuitous man-bashing. Goldsmith, more than in any other of her other books, deals in archetypes. It is, after all, a light-hearted revenge fantasy: It’s not as if knives and squishy body parts are involved.

What is involved, however, is a series of good scenes, especially if you’re a fan of over-the-top bonkbusters. You can almost see the blueprint behind the prose, the conscious attempt to write commercial fiction, the carefully-measured doses of sex and foul language. But scarcely any of that matters once you’re willing to play ball and sympathize with a trio of too-rich women with something to prove. The prose flies, the characters are speedily defined and scarcely any time is lost in attempts at sophistication. The New York social scene takes its lumps and even if there’s something almost annoying in how Goldsmith makes the same points over and over again, it’s hard to be resentful (or even dismissive) when we’re having some much fun.

As a first novel, it’s a good prototype for Goldsmith’s later string of novels. The one thing that seems to have been refined later on is not the heavy-handed moral ending of her stories, but the delightful suspense in knowing if a character will commit to good or evil. Here, everything initially painted as one or another ends up with the same alignment. Latter books would at least allow some latitude in that choice (though appropriate fates would still befall the characters). I can’t help but think that in a latter book, Mort Cushman’s purgatory would have resulted in moral re-alignment, redemption and maybe even a faintly positive ending. Here, well… maybe in the sequel.

All in all, though, it’s a worthwhile fun book, not particularly deep but amusing enough to please anyone looking for a few hours of entertainment. I wonder how the film compares, though…?

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