Heather and Mack McKay seem to have it all: wealth, a dream house in the suburbs, and two adorable children along with the nannies to raise them. But their marriage has lost its savor: she is a frustrated writer and he longs for a cultural trophy to hang on his belt. During a chance encounter in LA, Mack invites exiled writer Zoltan Barbu—once lionized as a political hero, now becoming a has-been—to live with him and his wife in their luxurious home. The plan ...
Heather and Mack McKay seem to have it all: wealth, a dream house in the suburbs, and two adorable children along with the nannies to raise them. But their marriage has lost its savor: she is a frustrated writer and he longs for a cultural trophy to hang on his belt.
During a chance encounter in LA, Mack invites exiled writer Zoltan Barbu—once lionized as a political hero, now becoming a has-been—to live with him and his wife in their luxurious home. The plan should provide Heather with literary companionship, Mack with cultural cachet, and Zoltan himself with a pastoral environment in which to overcome his writer’s block and produce a masterpiece.
Of course, as happens with triangles, complications arise—some hilarious, some sad—as the three players pursue a game that leads to shifting alliances and sexual misadventures. Shulman pokes fun at our modern malaise (why is having it all never enough?), even as she traces the ever-changing dynamics within a marriage. Ménage is a bravura performance from one of America’s most renowned feminist writers.
On a whim, trusting, childlike, gullible Mack McKay decides to install Zoltan, the once-famous émigré writer he meets at a funeral, in his sprawling suburban New Jersey home in order to nurture the blocked author’s next book. His real motive, however, is to give his frustrated wannabe writer wife, Heather, a literary companion and enliven his dull marriage. Zoltan is a caricature of creative sponging: lazy and overly dramatic. He talks up the novel he isn’t writing, ruins his host’s sleep, “borrows” diamond cuff links and bottles of wine, and robs the couple of valuable possessions and their lofty ideals. Heather draws all her validation from the men around her; she’s suspicious to the point of paranoia and possessive, an annoying shrew who views Zoltan as a sexual playmate, bought and paid for by her husband. As Zoltan grows more independent, the McKays close ranks. While money and privilege has rendered the couple hopelessly naïve, the bottom-feeding Zoltan has the street smarts and scavenging skills to con them. In the end, Heather and Mack are violated and disappointed, but their initial expectations were never quite clear. Say this is satire, because it’s hard to believe that such one-dimensional characters and hazy plot lines came from the same feminist author who wrote the classic Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. (May)
This first novel in a great while from noted feminist writer Shulman explores the vacuous marriage of young, nouveau one-percenters Mack and Heather, a golden couple who met at Yale. Mack has since made a fortune in real estate and built a LEED-certified mansion in the New Jersey suburbs. Heather fancies herself an aspiring writer but feels marginalized at home with the children and nanny, nursing suspicions—not unfounded—that Mack is having affairs. In the novel's early scenes, written in an accelerated style reminiscent of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, Mack travels to L.A. for a dalliance and finds himself on the fringes of the cinema/literati crowd. He meets Zoltan Barbu, a washed-up Russian émigré author with serious writer's block, and invites him east to stay at their mansion. The novel downshifts to a witty domestic drama when Zoltan joins their household and Heather begins to throw herself at him. Materialists to the core, both she and Mack treat their houseguest like a possession, and he responds by pilfering from their wine cellar and jewelry drawers. VERDICT A lighthearted read with an urbane twist; many readers will enjoy.—Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA
A surprisingly tart little literary satire from Shulman, whose long career includes a feminist classic (Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, 1972), biographies of Emma Goldman, children's books and affectionate memoirs. At 36, Mack McKay has made a ton of money with a hugely successful career as a developer. He has an airplane and a growing art collection in his one-of-a-kind mansion in New Jersey. But he senses his marriage to Heather, whom he met when they were students at Yale, has gone stale. He still adores Heather but is spending more and more time in Los Angeles wining and dining a hottie named Maja. Meanwhile Heather has put her literary ambitions on hold to raise their two children in the suburbs, with the help of nannies of course. Mack senses Heather's resentment, although not her sexual paranoia concerning Mack and Maja--an affair that is never going to happen, especially once Maja commits suicide. At her funeral, Mack meets Maja's actual lover, dashingly handsome if aging Zoltan Barbu, whose book Mack meant to return to Maja before her untimely demise. Exiled from an unnamed Eastern European nation and championed by the likes of Susan Sontag, Zolton was once a literary cause célèbre but now is broke, suffering from writer's block and about to be evicted from his apartment. Nevertheless he works his charm on Mack, who invites him back to the manse in New Jersey as a surprise for Heather. The agreement is that Zoltan will get a luxurious writer's refuge and Heather will be presented with an intellectual companion. Needless to say, Mack's plan goes awry. There is a clash of values, none of them noble though all self-justifying. Forget Shulman's reputation as a feminist author; spoiled, self-absorbed Heather is no more sympathetic than the two men who with her form an increasingly barbed triangle of mixed signals. And the liberal publishing establishment doesn't come off too well either. For a woman approaching 80, Shulman is delightfully wicked, verging on malevolent.
Alix Kates Shulman is the author of the feminist classic Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen and three other novels; two previous memoirs, including the award-winning Drinkingthe Rain; and two books on the political activist Emma Goldman. She lives in New York City.
At the first ring of the phone Heather leaped up, overturning her tea. She glanced at her watch: late. Emergency? An official announcement of Mack’s sudden death? She hoped she hoped not, but wouldn’t bet on it. She let the tea sink into the Moroccan rug, which, unlike her, seemed able to absorb everything without showing it.
His death would certainly shake things up, lift the doubt that had settled over her like mist in the valley, allowing her to see ahead to some decisive act. If he suddenly died she’d sell the house, buy a condo in the city, find a good school for the kids, and enroll in the best MFA program she could get into. Or take a live-in lover and stay on here to write. If their father died in an accident, the children couldn’t blame her—how often did they see him anyway?—though part of her believed there are no accidents.
She reached for the phone. Forget the insurance. Bite your tongue. Where would they be without Mack? She picked up before voicemail kicked in and heard the familiar “Hi, babe.”
Only Mack, calling with lies. She moved to the floor and squatted on her haunches, back flat against the wall, and took a deep breath, marshalling her wits. “Oh, hi. Finally!” “Believe it or not, this is the first free minute I’ve had all day. You weren’t asleep, were you?”
“No, but you missed the kids, they’ve been asleep for hours.” She hadn’t wanted to accuse him; it just popped out. She pressed each vertebra against the wall, then slowly rose and squatted again. “I know. But I need to talk to you, babe.” “I need to talk to you too. In fact, I’ve been trying and trying to reach you, but your phone was off. I tried your hotel, but you aren’t there. Where are you, Mack?” “In a restaurant. About to have dinner.” “With—?” “Actually, a very interesting man. A writer. You’ve probably heard of him. Zoltan Barbu?”