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Book Review : Divorcee Gets a Little Help, Humor From Her Friends : The Woman Who Was Not All There by Paula Sharp (Harper & Row: $16.95; 344 pp.)

There’s a prevalent myth or mind-set going around right now about divorce: It’s the men who leave, go on to marry babes right out of high school, buy yachts and have a generally wonderful time. It’s the women who get to stay home in the old house with the broken-down couch and a handful of pesky kids. The discarded wife perishes emotionally from abandonment. The husband--dangerous sociopath that he is--does just fine. There’s just enough truth (or convenience) in this myth to keep it current in this society, as in “blondes have more more, abandoned wives have less.”

“The Woman Who Was Not All There” takes a look at this time-frame in a woman’s life--the time from when she is “left” to the moment when the family she has held together for a dozen years begins to peel away, to give her some freedom at last. (I would say right here that this is a book to buy several copies of, to give to mothers on Mother’s Day or Christmas; to give to desperate girlfriends who have just seen their husbands snuggling up to someone else.)

This novel gives us a worst case scenario: A nice Southern girl puts her husband through law school, has four children by him and then is abandoned, so that she must eke out a hard living as a nurse, get used to existing in a “manless” world, watch her own beauty fade, so that she comes up with shapeless ankles and an “unmarriageable” face. After all that, the novel turns out to be a comedy, or, better than that, a fiction which looks so hard at a human situation that clean, pure reality shows through.

The life this “ordinary” woman lives with her “ordinary” kids and her ever-widening circle of outcast girlfriends, is as rich and full and heartbreaking and fun as the lives of Presidents. You mean, women don’t roll over and croak with sorrow when their husbands leave? What a concept!

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The novel is set in Durham, S.C., for the most part, and the South is achingly, sweetly evoked. Marjorie LeBlanc, the hard-working nurse, is so brave in her work, so silly and endearing in her limitations, that you not only want her for a friend, you think you have her for a friend. The kids, Ruth and Carla, two tomboys who giggle and tease and wrestle and carry on, are wonderful. The quiet son, Sam, who is kindness itself, is a perfect portrait. And Karen, the pretty, conventional one who wants more than life itself to live in the “normal” world, brings tears to your eyes as she looks through windows into “normal” homes to find out how “normal” people live.

Rescued by Women

What often happens after a divorce, or in the interstices between marriages, is that women meet other women (who have often been there all the time, but who can’t be seen from within the sanctity of marriage). In “The Woman Who Was Not All There,” Marjorie is rescued by Bertha, her sister, an anthropologist; a lady named Rita who runs a Laundromat; a horse trainer named Jeanie; a pretty woman named Ellen just passing through between relationships, and Faith Budd, still languishing in an unhappy marriage to an extremely believable creep with three creepy sons.

What do these women do? They work hard at pointless jobs but mostly they have a good time. They kid around. They drink gin or Johnnie Walker. They play Hearts on the front porch. (And these “Hearts” scenes are so lovely, so perfect, they make your head swim.)

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This is a swell first novel. And revolutionary. What if it really is harder, for instance, for a woman to lose a girlfriend than a husband? Could that really be true? I’d never admit it; I wouldn’t want to rock the boat. But Paula Sharp has already tipped over the boat, and she’s wearing the most wonderful life jacket!


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