BENEATH THE SURFACE OF Marriage of Masks
and The Tragedv Queen,
both novels by women of a certain age, runs the question "What do women want?" When love, marriage, and motherhood let them down, these two writers tell us, they want independence and some respect -- or sweet revenge.
The central character of Marriage of Masks, the third novel by the New Brunswick writer M. T. Dohaney, concedes that her marriage of two decades has been a sham in which she colluded at her own expense. The title is apt: the marriage has been hollow from the start. Beneath the tidy surface of faculty wife and mother, there has been for Laura only loneliness, humiliation, and two decades of lousy sex. Willful blindness kept her from recognizing that her husband Kevin's first love has always been his male grad student, Jesse.
Dohaney's writing is smoothly unremarkable, her characterization predictable. Laura is the only rounded character, while most of the others -- her husband, daughter, parents -- are narrowly self-interested and vindictive. Kevin insists they break the news of the separation to their daughter, Hannah, while she's home in Fredericton for Thanksgiving from Laval. Hewing to long-established family custom, Hannah furiously attacks her mother. Dohaney puts mother and daughter together in a car for the long drive back to Laval, an effective device for maintaining tension in the story. While Hannah may refuse to listen, the reader has access to the inside of Laura's head. By the end of the road Laura has evolved from family scapegoat to free spirit -- or freer, at least, as she is still protecting, still denying, still making deals with fate. Dohaney rejects the sop of the romantic ending -- Laura's one brief transgression from the straight and narrow path of wifehood has restored her faith in herself, but now she must follow that dream. Hard to believe, however, that she'll get out and change the world while she's still carrying so much ballast.
Linda Leith's second novel, The Tragedy Queen, is a more ambitious book, with a whole community, beautiful PointeClaire, Quebec, serving as supporting players. While some tend toward caricature, they are caricatures with interesting dimensions: the eccentric MacLoon, hounded from the neighborhood for his creepy "black garden," the septuagenarian ex-stripper smoking Sobranies in her daughter's basement. Leith's most ambitious creation is Vince Carlson, disbarred lawyer, "fraud artist and sweetheart swindler," who returns to his old neighbourhood with traumatic memories, a fatal lust for the opera singer Jessye Norman, and a severe allergy to chevre and red wine. Vince, a.k.a. Win Cunningham, a.k.a. A.S. Windle, a.k.a. N. Vince Ybl, rents the home of Sal Schleiermacher (a.k.a. a bunch of names as well, for more respectable reasons), who is off in Bratislava studying cello. Like the devious cad in a restoration comedy, Vince preys on the bored wives in this bedroom (sic) community, thrusting his Harley and black silk bikini in their faces. He himself is proof of his moral axiom "the haves are evil incarnate": the more he acquires, the more despicable he becomes.
We don't meet Sal, the "tragedy queen," as Vince calls her, until the final pages, but we come to know her as he does, through her house, her chattels (which he sells), and her journal (which he reads). It's hard to believe that someone like Vince would find anything to relate to in this beautifully delineated account of the denouement of a marriage and the painful growth of self-knowledge; for example:
Now, when it's too late, we finally give up on the idea of being superwoman, and focus on just those two or three or is it four things we cannot do without.
The Tragedy Queen runs the gamut from satire to black comedy to slapstick to melodrama. It is often insightful and even profound. Reviewers of Leith's first novel, Birds of Passage, compared her to Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, and Alison Lurie. For this one, try Fay Weldon, John Updike, and Wagner -- the showdown between Vince and Sal is a clash of evil dwarf and Valkyrie. Vince's final comeuppance might seem to be the triumph of smug, privileged Pointe-Claire over the outsider, but Vince, Leith makes clear, is equal to Pointe-Claire. His downfall is in taking on another insider/outsider, a woman who has evolved beyond her setting.
Vince's sardonic perspective allows Leith to make many telling observations on Quebec and late-20th-century life. At the interface of French and Anglo communities, for example, "the red maple leaf on the white background is like a red flag, a provocation." Yet after I finished the book, I felt uneasy: the gloriously nasty piece of work that is Vince sits unevenly alongside his sensitive soul and much intelligent writing.
A recent interview with Leith sheds interesting light on the impetus for the book. While she and her family were in Hungary for two years, a tenant ransacked their Pointe-Claire home. In the process of trying to understand what kind of person would do such a thing, she says, she realized she had the beginnings of a novel. That explains for me why The Tragedy Queen sometimes feels like a hate letter: written with passion and brilliant inventiveness, it might have benefited from being put away in a drawer until a cooler head prevailed. But that said, Leith is a wonderful writer and there is much here to admire. Might as well relax and enjoy The Tragedy Queen for what it is, a delicious revenge fantasy, and await her next book with interest.