Twists of marriage

McNamara is a Times television critic.

Maria Semple's debut novel, "This One Is Mine," may be more memorable for the things it does not do than the things that it does. Although it is a Hollywood-ish novel (the protagonist is a former television writer, her husband a successful music industry player), there is not a lot of name-dropping or veiled references to quirky and troublesome public figures.

Semple, a former television writer herself, notes in her book jacket bio that she "escaped from Los Angeles" and is now living on an island off Seattle. So while there is much local color, there is not a lot of L.A.-bashing, which is an enormous relief. The story line deals, in part, with the heroine's ambivalence toward her relatively new motherhood, yet, mercifully, we do not have to endure the Greek chorus of harpy other-mothers that so many mommy-centric novels seem to find irresistible. And finally, while "This One Is Mine" dwells in that rarefied yet inevitably unhappy realm of the super-rich, Semple does not feel obligated to provide an infuriating catalog of designer clothing, shoes and appliances. For this alone, she may be worthy of canonization.

"This One Is Mine" follows the adventures of Violet Parry as she enters the third year of motherhood and discovers that life as the Neutra house-rehabbing wife of a music mogul is not what it's cracked up to be. Oh, she loves her little Dot, except that she sometimes can't stay in the same room with the kid. And when did her husband, David, start treating her like a dimwitted servant? (Hint: when she quit her job.)

Wandering around Beverly Hills in a lachrymose haze, she takes refuge in the Museum of Television & Radio (now known as the Paley Center for Media), where she meets cute Teddy Reyes, a beyond-scruffy jazz musician and former drug addict who has hepatitis C.

In Teddy's brilliant-green but jaundiced eyes, she sees something of her former self and swiftly embarks on one of those affairs that we all know is going to End Badly. The question becomes: "How badly?" Irrevocably tragic "Ice Storm" badly? Or just eleventh-hour-warning "Little Children" badly? (There's a Tom Perrotta blurb on the back cover.)

On the opposite slope of the marital mountain is Sally, David's more than slightly damaged sister, a personal trainer whom we meet as she begins her relentless pursuit of Jeremy, a savant-like, antisocial sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times (not any sort of animal who could possibly exist in real life). Jeremy, Sally has been told, is about to be given a lucrative television deal. Another huge departure from reality, I fear, but providing the necessary impetus for Sally's obsessive desire. She wants a rich husband and is willing to do anything to get him. (She and Violet don't talk much.)

Me, I'm a sucker for any book that takes on the complications of modern marriage and parenthood, and Semple deftly portrays the deleterious effect an un-negotiated workload arrangement -- because he is the breadwinner, David expects Violet to take care of everything on the home front -- can have. She also beautifully renders the twists and turns an overburdened heart can take -- when David suspects the affair, he moves from ruthless retribution to tender forgiveness in a way that is unbelievably believable (especially considering there is a yoga retreat involved). Semple turns what could have been a by-the-numbers character into a contradictory and strangely compelling man right before our eyes.

Indeed, Semple's greatest strength is the courage to stock her book with characters who are, upon first glance, largely unsympathetic and then gently peel them until they become, if not entirely likable, then at least recognizably and even endearingly human.

She is aided by a splendid eye for detail. Violet's anguish when she realizes she weighs a pound more than the NBA's star point guard rings hilariously true. Sally's lifelong battle with diabetes unfolds with effective precision, giving her troubling personality unexpected dimension, and the source of Jeremy's troubles are clear to the reader long before they are to Sally. But who among us has not overlooked obvious red flags in the quest for happiness?

So it is disappointing, and surprising, that the main character, and the main thread of this keenly observed, well-written book, falls so flat. Although we are meant to see Violet at her nadir, it is difficult to imagine the weepy, listless, self-pitying woman who rationalizes her way through the most absurd affair on record as a writer, much less a once-successful television writer. Yes, motherhood does make cowards of us all and Hollywood is a shark tank, but surely a thinking woman, one who quotes Sondheim with exasperating regularity, could find solace if not a solution in something other than an affair with a hygienically challenged, openly derisive ex-junkie. Couldn't she just write a children's book?

I appreciate the titillating thrill of personal abasement as much as the next guilt-ridden working mother, but try as I might, I could not believe for one minute the mutual rule-breaking attraction between Violet and Teddy. Not because he is a hep C-infected ex-junkie but because, well, there was no magic there. Of course, many great loves seem, to an outsider, improbable and ridiculous, but since, at its roots, "This One Is Mine" is a multi-pronged love story, the reader should at least experience a moment of the against-all-odds passion. Otherwise Violet's subsequent actions are simply exercises in self-destruction.

Truth, of all variety, triumphs here. "This One Is Mine" is refreshingly clear-eyed about its characters and subjects, and in an excellent twist, David becomes the most interesting and sympathetic character in the book. It is his journey, oddly, that makes "This One Is Mine" worth reading.


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