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Book Review : A ‘Married Romance’ Romp

A Fine Time to Leave Me by Terry Pringle (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: $15.95; 293 pages)

This book belongs to a category that enjoyed huge popularity 40 years ago; the “married romance,” in which a delicious ingenue marries a darling young man, finds her illusions about romance hopelessly dashed, briefly goes home to mother-- home to mother , that’s what I said--and then, wiser, more matronly, a “woman” now, returns to her husband--ready to submit her lively, independent will to the grave responsibilities of marriage and motherhood.

The immensely popular “Claudia and David” series comes to mind, as well as the ‘50s French cinematic equivalent, “Richard et Caroline.” Even Edna Ferber’s vast, panoramic “Giant” carried this material as a sub-text.

Read today, the “Married Romance” comes as a stern admonition to young women everywhere: All right--you’ve had your little feminist fling. It’s time, now, don’t you think, to put down that heavy briefcase and return to the golden days of the past, where for 18 years a girl was papa’s petted darling; then she got married, had children and became mother to another set of papa’s petted darlings?

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Isn’t that really the way the world ought to work? How you feel about these questions will determine how you feel about the engaging young couple in “A Fine Time to Leave Me.”

Chris Gray is a freshman at Baylor University, a poor farmer’s boy, working in a convenience store, when a fortuitous accident allows him to meet graduating senior, Lori Connor. She’s rich, popular, spoiled. The couple fall madly in love, and their love blinds them to certain Texan class differences: Chris’ dad is poor, antisocial and a Democrat. Lori’s parents are nouveau riche oil people; Republican, and Baptist to the core.

The couple marry. Predictably, Lori doesn’t know how to cook. (A source of much light-hearted comedy here.) Also, Lori doesn’t know the value of a dollar. She brings crushing middle-class values to the marriage, and her husband is left holding things together--even though he dreams the great dreams men dream, like not getting tied down to household appliances, or like going to Rome, or doing something significant with his life.

The authorial voice here is so genial, so affable, so “Texan” in the sweetest sense, that for a while the reader thinks the author is being ironic about the necessity for Little Lori to “grow up,” until a devastating conversation in which Chris refuses money from Lori’s dad, because it’s time for her to, yes, “grow up.” (Except, that, at this time in the narrative, Lori is supporting the couple by working, and doing all the housework, while Chris is still in school.) You begin to suspect you’re in the company of an author who’s more than serious about putting his fictional woman in her place: He’s adamant , he’s still arguing the question.

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As the smooth narrative continues--and this is a very readable book--nagging questions begin to crop up: If poor Lori can’t cook and is working full time, why don’t they order out? Better yet, why doesn’t this bozo of a husband help her in the kitchen?! And if Chris hates his job so much, why doesn’t he get a new one? Or, if he’s so dead set about Rome, why don’t they rent their Austin house and for heaven’s sake, go to Rome for a year or two? Students do it all the time! That’s what exchange programs are for!

But these are objections of the late ‘80s. “A Fine Time to Leave Me” is of the ‘40s. You wouldn’t catch Claudia ordering a pizza, or Caroline hustling out to the Charcuterie for dinner. No, they must burn their pretty fingers, go home to mother, then willingly assume the role of kill-joy in their “mature” husbands’ lives. Reality? No. “Married Romance?” Certainly. Thank God it’s fiction.


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