The fiction/reality overlap strikes again. Just as a really funny story can put you in a great mood, a sexy romantic scene in a book might make you a little amorous, a book about a no-goodnik husband makes you cast a negative eye toward your generally fabulous husband.
Such was my reaction to the memoir by Julie Metz, Perfection. At age 44, after 13 years of marriage, Julie’s husband, Henry, dropped dead on her kitchen floor. Hundreds attended Henry’s memorial service.
But all was not well in the marriage. Arguments were common and Henry seemed to go out of his way to be deliberately provoking. Worse, her circle of friends knew something that Julie did not – that Henry was unfaithful. Even worse, Henry had engaged in a years-long affair with one of Julie’s closest friends. (In fact, the woman broke down, wailing, at Henry’s memorial service and still Julie did not suspect.) And the worst came to pass when Julie discovered Henry’s emails to his many lovers. Reading about Julie’s sick fascination with Henry’s emails was fascinating in itself! The more I read, the more dastardly Henry was revealed to be. Men are dogs.
“You’re frowning,” my husband commented.
Silence from me, of course, because I am reading and my husband’s very existence, at that moment, is annoying me.
I went through most of one Saturday irritated with all the men in the world, thanks to Perfection. What happened to Julie Metz is terrible! Her husband lied to her, manipulated her, let money slip through his hands like water, spent every penny of a book advance on a book he never actually wrote (and went on “research” trips that were just sex-capades).
But then I got irritated with Julie. The hard part about a memoir, of course, is that it has to be true. So all the stupid things that you’d never let your heroine do in fiction are included in a memoir, because they really happened. And all the unlikable things about real people, things that you’d never let Julia Roberts do in the movie version of the story, are described.
So Julie’s quest to hunt down and scream at her husband’s lovers (or at least the five she knows about) is painfully documented in the book. Her grieving leads to weight loss, but her focus on buying new clothes and satisfaction with her appearance make her seem superficial, smug and self-satisfied. Her affair with a much younger man (amazingly sexy and a sculptor to boot – so fabulous!) is undertaken deliberately so that her dead husband can make love to her once again (but to do so, he needs “a body”).
Julie Metz is a good writer. She describes things well, she articulates her feelings, she moves the plot along, alternating her memories of the past with her discoveries in the present. What she doesn’t do is make you feel her love, her rage, her hope, her joy. Which is particularly unfortunate, since she’s the focus. The men in her life, from Henry to her new partner, Will, are the planets. Julie’s the sun they circle.
Perfection is getting a lot of media play. Julie Metz works in publishing (she’s a graphic designer and designs book jackets – hers is scrumptious). It’s been mentioned at least twice in the New York Times. Once was a feature on summer reading (which led me to purchase it). The second time was in a news story that included a picture of Henry (not so handsome, in my opinion – my own husband is better looking!). It’s #16 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestsellers’ list. Perfection has a great concept – wife discovers husband’s infidelities after he’s dead, questions her memories of their happy life together, hits to the road to confront the truth, then puts the past in the past and makes a new life for herself and her daughter. I’d like to see Anita Shreve, or Elizabeth Berg, or Ann Packer take that story arc and write a novel that won’t leave me snappish and vaguely dissatisfied.
There aren’t very many books that stick with me. But when I’m reading and immersed in a story, the real world ceases to exist. And if it’s a really special book, it will take days to shake it off enough to return to me (and my ever-loving husband)! I think of all the books I’ve read, Sophie’s Choice still stops me in my tracks with a horrible, dreadful feeling.
Yes, my husband is long-suffering during these times too!
It’s likely I’d enjoy reading your book reviews more than the books you review. It’s time to write a book!
In reading your review about this woman and her departed husband, it occurred to me that this story is probably far more common than any of us can imagine or would like to think. Human nature (ego) is such that it’s never content with what is and always seeks more–more money and the things it can buy; more pleasure; more knowledge, etc. We spend all our time reliving the past or preparing for the future and never know the profound comfort and beauty of this present moment which, in truth, is all there ever is.
More and more I take comfort in understanding that while I HAVE thoughts and feelings, they are not who I am. What a relief.
Great review and great writing style as always.