His Lovely Wife

May 8, 2006

Elizabeth Dewberry is a native of Birmingham, and her first two, very successful novels, were set there, with the third set in New Orleans. His Lovely Wife is set in Paris at the time of of Princess Diana's death.

The heroine of Elizabeth Dewberry's fourth novel, Ellen Baxter, is 36 years old, very attractive, and staying at the Ritz Hotel in Paris with her husband, Lawrence, who is attending an international convention of physicists. Ellen is not a happy woman. She and Lawrence have no children of their own, but she has spent many years raising his ungrateful son.

Ellen is sick and tired of having hosts at parties introduce her and her husband as "our Nobel laureate and his lovely wife."(Dewberry admits to the same feelings when introduced as Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Robert Olen Butler's lovely wife Elizabeth.) And Ellen is really lovely. At the Ritz, as she and Lawrence are getting out of a limo, the paparazzi mistake her for Lady Diana.

The next morning, Ellen, unable to sleep, goes for a jog at 5 a.m., a jog that takes her down the Seine to the pont de l'Alma underpass, where a wrecked limousine is being hauled away. Yes, she is at the site of Princess Diana's death.

Next begins what Henry James called the donn?e, the given. Ellen begins to hear Lady Di's voice. Diana is still around. She can hear Ellen's thoughts and Ellen can hear, in her mind, of course, Lady Diana. The reader must either accept this high-concept proposition or quit reading.

The two women have a lot in common. Both live in the shadows of their insensitive and cool husbands, Ellen more than Di, of course. Both have issues with their mothers and find them unsympathetic and impossible to please. Ellen's mother was Miss Alabama, but Ellen was not interested in tiaras. What a disappointment for mom.

About Prince Charles, we already know too much. Lawrence is a little harder to be angry at. He just isn't rotten enough (lots of novels by other women would have made him much rottener). Lawrence is self-absorbed, but he is thinking about the cosmos, not other women. Ellen is angry at him because he does not want to redo their kitchen with a six-burner Viking stove, granite counters, etc. Lawrence says they don't need it, and he doesn't want workmen around the house for weeks. I agree.

Ellen must find something meaningful to do. She must, we feel, forgive her mother, finish her novel, write more poetry, do something that matters to her. But first, she achieves consequence-free adultery with Max, one of the nicer photographers who had tormented Diana (or had Di courted their harassment?).

(By consequence-free, I mean Bridges of Madison County-style adultery where the husband never finds out and the wife and female readers get to have a sexual adventure without shame, scandal, loss of custody, and decades of alimony. We are seeing more and more of this in recent fiction.)

Elizabeth Dewberry is a native of Birmingham, and her first two, very successful novels, were set there. Her third was set in New Orleans and is much less satisfying. His Lovely Wife is meant to be a comeback book of sorts, and may be, but only for sympathetic readers. First, one must swallow the channeling of Princess Diana. Second, the novel is told in a present-tense omniscient I find irritating and exhausting: "Princess Diana was declared dead at four a.m. . . . but I don't know that yet."

Also, this narrative is informed by string theory. Perhaps all matter is energy in the form of infinitesimally small strings, and there are wormholes, through which we and perhaps Diana may pass to other parallel dimensions of reality. Well, perhaps, but it would take a modern Shakespeare to make conversations about string theory interesting for long.

On the other hand, Paris is intrinsically appealing, and you can't go wrong setting a novel there and using a lot of bridge and street names.