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The Dangerous Husband

The Dangerous Husband

4.0 2
by Jane Shapiro

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As clever as it is heartbreaking, this comic masterpiece—now in paperback—tells the story of a marriage that is not, after all, exactly like anyone else's. Or is it?


As clever as it is heartbreaking, this comic masterpiece—now in paperback—tells the story of a marriage that is not, after all, exactly like anyone else's. Or is it?

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
In her second novel, THE DANGEROUS HUSBAND, Jane Shapiro continues the exploration of relationships between men and women she began in 1992's AFTER MOONDOG. Shapiro's new quirky, funny, and sad tale chronicles what happens when a smart and self-reliant but lonely woman marries the wrong man. The title character, an independently wealthy sociologist turned novelist named Dennis, can't get through the day without injuring himself, his wife, or various pets. The heroine, who narrates the story from a vantage point looking back over the course of their two-year relationship, makes her living as a photographer; she records the marriage in daily snapshots, yet her vision of the world becomes clouded by a haze of love.

The two 40-year-old New Yorkers find each other at a friend's Thanksgiving dinner, where, the narrator says, "[a]s soon as we met, in short, we fell in love." Dennis has just lost his job in academia and plunges instead into writing a long-dreamed-of novel. Though he's clumsy, and her friends seem wary, she moves into his Brooklyn Heights brownstone and they soon marry.

Weaving absurdity into a realistic narrative, Shapiro recounts life after the wedding. "We entered the bedroom and rushed each other. I was wearing a garter belt and stockings. He peeled the stockings off conscientiously, and he ripped them anyway. Of course I didn't yet know that every time my husband would touch my stockings, the whole time I'd be his wife, he would leave them in shreds." Dennis's foibles multiply. He smashes his head on a squash court, totals his Alfa Romeo, and burns himself smokingacigar. He morphs from a sexy, strong man to one who "stopped washing his hair daily, and sometimes slept on his hair so that he spent the following day with the demented look of a stuffed chick that's been mashed in a kid's Easter basket." By her first anniversary, the narrator often wakes with her teeth clenched, and the accident report mounts: he wrenches her neck, crushes her toes, breaks her arm, and gives her a concussion.

Shapiro doesn't merely report the mishaps, she describes them in almost slow-motion detail: In one scene, the narrator attempts to make coffee. I "backed toward Den but didn't touch him; he felt me there and twitched and, shaking off the twitch, stumbled and lurched against the stove and the loop of his khakis caught the skillet's handle while he turned, and his pants yanked the skillet, and the eggs slid inside it, and the skillet fell, we saw it falling. It landed on my left foot."

The narrator tries to discuss the problem with her husband; he responds with elaborate gifts or plummets into depression and self-flagellation. She tells herself he's still a sweet and generous man who isn't trying to hurt her deliberately. She looks around for help, but doesn't have family, and all her friends have disappeared. Locked out of the house one day, she assesses the situation: "...like a child who has threatened to run away, and whose mother has called her bluff and packed her suitcase — I sat there in zazen blankness on the top step of my own house: I had nowhere else to go."

When she finally contemplates leaving Dennis (and does so, briefly, twice), she faces a frightening obstacle: he vetoes separation or divorce, effectively threatening to kill himself if she flees.

It's around this point, halfway through the novel, that she concludes that only one of them will survive and consults a hit man. The "killer," a young writer she's met at a party, turns out to be an excellent listener and the narrator pours out her woes to him as they sip iced tea in her garden.

Though Shapiro mostly balances the seesaw between earnest storytelling and black comedy skillfully, THE DANGEROUS HUSBAND does test the limits of believability. At times, the author fails to adequately explain her characters' motivations and actions, and some obvious questions remain unanswered — for instance, whether the narrator considers manic depression or some other mental illness as an explanation for Dennis's behavior.

Though flawed, the narrator isn't pathetic or self-pitying. Like the heroine of AFTER MOONDOG, she's vital and clever; she pauses to appreciate irony and accepts her own faults — usually in an amusingly self-deprecating way. "I'm talking to an amphibian. I need human beings," she acknowledges after a "conversation" with the couple's albino pet frog.

Beautifully written and refreshing in its inventiveness, THE DANGEROUS HUSBAND is also well paced and suspenseful. The narrator's plight, her engaging voice, and passages of snappy dialogue carry the novel's runaway train of a plot to an ultimately satisfying conclusion. Beneath its humor and exaggeration, Shapiro's entertaining tale resonates with a clear message: Here's what loneliness leads to; choose your mate carefully.

—Abby Tannenbaum

Lauren Sanders
The Dangerous Husband is an artfully rendered thriller, as the author conveys her narrator's balancing act between fear and guilt, love and contempt. So glistening is her prose that the narrator's commentary on married life at times obfuscates her feelings, yet Shapiro expertly defines the overwhelming loneliness that follows the dissolution of romantic love. Hilarious, if slightly implausible, encounters with a fake Guardian Angel and a stylish killer/novelist provide dark comic relief, but the heart of this novel lies in shapiro's elegant construction of a monstrous marriage...a kill or be killed proposition.
Time Out New York
Lorrie Moore
No one is funner...brilliant and succinct...fluent in irony at levels that would cause most other writers to pass out.
Paper Magazine
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Veering skillfully between hilarity, suspense and surreal pathos, Shapiro's eagerly awaited second novel (after the highly praised Moondog, 1992) again demonstrates her witty take on the battle of the sexes. The narrator, whose wry and sophisticated voice is an ear-perfect blend of wisecracks, aper us and mounting frenzy, describes the dizzy rapture of falling in love, at 40, with a wealthy ex-sociology professor and would-be novelist, and their whirlwind marriage. She soon discovers that her new husband, Dennis, is a major klutz, constantly tripping, falling, spilling, colliding, bumping and lurching--and breaking objects and bones. His total misperception of spatial relationships begins to assume dangerous dimensions after he variously crushes his now-alarmed wife's toe with a hot skillet, wrenches her neck, drops her on a tile floor, breaks her arm by hugging her, gives her a concussion in circumstances she cannot describe, raises a giant hematoma by trodding on her leg and in general leaves her black and blue--and scared to death. Dennis's maladroitness always has a hilarious edge: on the verge of sex, he perches on a glass coffee table that predictably shatters: "Daggers flew up and he landed in shards." In fact, Dennis is more than a little strange; he never tells his bride that he's been married several times before, or discusses what became of his former wives. He keeps an albino frog in a bucket in the basement, lavishes affection on a hyper dog who pees on the rug, and has driven his neurotic cat into permanent hiding. "This was the kind of person my husband was: strange, loving, lethal," the narrator muses, gradually realizing that to prevent her own accidental mutilated demise, Dennis "really needed to be dead." When she engages a suave and sexy hit man (he's also a novelist) to do the deed, the narrative moves into beautifully controlled farce. The reader springs through this book in a state of giddy anticipation and nervous laughter. Even the narrator's occupation adds an edge to the clever premise--she is a photographer obsessed with capturing reality, but trapped in a surreal situation. Shapiro takes risks here, but she acquits herself triumphantly. Author tour. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
What's a never-married, impecunious, middle-aged photographer to do when she is presented with what seems like the solution to all her problems? And what's she to do when she sees the error of her ways? At the outset of this engaging novel, our protagonist meets and marries Dennis, the man of her dreams. But soon she realizes that he's slovenly and accident-prone, and, increasingly, the accidents bring her pain. After visiting an alarming array of Brooklyn's emergency rooms and discovering secrets from her husband's past, the protagonist begins fearing for her life and plotting against her husband. Dennis is sweet, loving, and thoughtful--but he's dangerous. Convinced that she cannot leave him but suffering yet another broken bone, she buys a knife and a rope and reads up on poisons. Shapiro's second novel (following After Moondog) is a wry, irony-filled fable of love and the kind of loneliness that clouds second thoughts until it's too late. Recommended for public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/99.]--Judith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Megan Harlan
(A) devilishly funny novel...Edgily mixing wit, surrealism, and suspense, Shapiro delivers a sharp, hilarious arable about marital self-presevation.

Entertainment Weekly

Deirdre Donahue
What makes The Dangerous Husband so memorable are Shapiro's insights into the universal nature of marriage and love.
—Deirdre Donahue, USA Today
Chicago Tribune
Stylish and resonant and fiercely funny...a complex narrative weave of modern female life.
—On After Moondog
Miami Herald
Better than any work of fiction published this year.
— On After Moondog
Boston Globe
Half satire and half heartbreakcaptures the texture of a marriage and its aftermath with poignant charm.
—On After Moondog Boston Globe
Washington Post
Funny, graceful, preternaturally assuredit's commonplace to say someone 'writes like a dream'-but that's literally true of Jane Shapiro.
— On After Moondog
Elegant, sly, and sly.

Kirkus Reviews
Trading the Jersey suburbs of her acclaimed debut, After Moondog (1992), for the brownstones of Brooklyn, Shapiro outdoes herself to pull off an absorbing black comedy again featuring an excruciatingly muddled marriage. Here, though, as far as the bewildered bride is concerned, it's one that quickly winds up like being on death row with every appeal exhausted. When they meet at a Manhattan dinner party, the chemistry is perfect: she (nameless) is a lonely photographer struggling to make ends meet; he, Dennis, a recently fired sociologist now working on a novel, is lonely, too—but rich. So they move in together in his brownstone and soon marry. Her photographic chronicle of the early days shows the usual blissful postcoital images, but as weeks turn into months, bruises and bandages begin to appear on both of them, and the daily routine outside the frame increasingly comes to resemble a nightmare. More than clumsy, more than messy, more than weird—more than terrifying—Dennis's every movement leaves wreckage in its wake. In response, his spouse tries first to deny, then to cope, to no avail. When Dennis accidentally drops an iron skillet on her big toe, putting her on crutches and costing her an out-of-town photo assignment, she begins to think in terms of self-defense. By chance, she soon runs across a novelist moonlighting as a hit man, and makes arrangements to put Dennis out of her misery. She can't go through with it, though, and so runs away instead, taking his pet albino frog with her. Lonely again, she goes back home after a week, but matters get only worse: first, the frog, then the cat, then the dog meet untimely ends, and when Dennis breaks her arm sheknows with chilling certainty that it's finally come down to her or him. Such goings-on have rarely been so outrageously, horribly funny and yet so eerily familiar: this is writing at its most nuanced and exquisite. (Author tour)

Product Details

Little, Brown & Company
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

We were introduced at one of those theatrical, poignant Manhattan Thanksgivings, a splendid party (singular guests, including small precocious chess-playing children and a cousin of Jim Jarmusch's; cornucopia of gourds and wildflowers pouring down the center of the trestle table; old family silver bought at a yard sale in Maine) in the clever, threadbare Horatio Street home of our shared acquaintance Lydia, a magazine editor who bravely orchestrates holiday feasts for the friends who have become her family and always takes in strays: This guy and I were the strays.

"Help me," he said in greeting. "I'm in a mess."

"I'm not the one to save you!" I snapped, and we laughed like maniacs.

He was holding his canapé plate as though clutching a railing and tipping white wine onto his trousers; my first act as his new friend was to swab with my cocktail napkin at his attractive lap. I had just finished recuperating from a romance with a fellow photographer that had ended as badly as expected—a bolter, and he bolted. Then, in a convalescent mood, I'd been taking some walks alongside a large psychiatric social worker and seeing some French movies with a small, wiry urologist, and these goalless activities had grown too noticeably noncommital for everybody involved; we were all three of us, medium, short, and tall, depressed, you may think, and maybe so. I had figured this was maturity—the end of gullibility, exaggerated expectations, being in a rush. Still, I occasionally caught myself in a sort of prayer: Somebody come to me. All these years and I had never managed to be married. This guy with thespilled wine, for his part, as I would learn immediately, was imagining his own new life, nothing involving any woman—he was going to write a novel.

"I'm so bad at impression management," he said.

"'Impression management'? Are you making a joke?"

"I'm thinking about Erving Goffman—sociologist who wrote Asylums? Goffman also wrote more interestingly than anybody about almost everything that happens when people get together, including spilling your drink. He's dead now. It's a real loss."

"I'm sorry." Suddenly I was aware of being stupidly charmed, as in the presence of, say, Sting, or Danny DeVito.

"Even though I only met him once, Goffman was my mentor."

"Okay, tell me."

Our first topic, then, Erving Goffman, late hero. Goffman who brilliantly delineates the ways in which social situations offer opportunities to convey flattering information about oneself even as those same occasions are inevitably risky times when unflattering information may be revealed—say, perhaps, about one's physical aplomb or lack thereof, he told me, grinning, standing slightly bent with the big wet spot on the front of his slacks. "Goffman himself was incapable of attending a dinner party without making the hostess cry." Goffman who in his book Interaction Ritual quotes an assertion attributed to Karl Wallenda on the subject of returning to the high wire after the Wallenda troupe's fatal accident in Detroit: "To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting." I was excited. Yes, the time is now—I will inch out on the wire! I gazed into the man's beautiful, fast-darkening eyes. Is this guy getting an erection? I asked myself, with the normal admixture of fear and hope, as together we prepared to kiss the past good-bye.

"Take a walk with me," he said, "and we'll start our conversation."

Once around the block at a measured pace through gray November air, doing some of the talking we'd apparently been saving up all our years for just such a moment.

How long ago it seems. We were chatting our little hearts out.

I told him about my first photograph, shot in 1971 in subway light at the Thirty-fourth Street station with my first range finder, when I was nineteen: an old man and an old woman sharing a laugh.

I told him about my thumbprint cyanotypes—to this day, I still love the giant whorls swirling lusciously in all that beautiful nineteenth-century blueness. "Hands have been used by artists in so many cultures," I averred, straining to attach some perhaps tenuous but nonetheless arguably genuine sociological (or possibly anthropological—still in the ballpark) import to my work. As we rounded the first corner, he held my wrist, causing me to blurt out useless technical information: "The paper is prepared with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferrous cyanide, dried away from bright light!" I wanted to forestall his thinking, For the last five years this woman has been taking pictures of her thumb. And, strolling at his side through an arcadian Greenwich Village, I saw myself breaking free of hitherto unfelt chains: I've worked with blue too long.

As soon as we met, in short, we fell in love. It hit us hard, the way love is supposed to, here in America. It made us feel nauseated and carry ourselves tenderly. Sudden passion. Unlooked-for communion. Hope of repair.

When sociologist Erving Goffman speaks of fatefulness, this is surely what he means. Secretly we were starved twins, suddenly at the end of our lifelong search for our other halves. We were forty years old and, now I see, immaculate.

* * *

Back at Lydia's, we switched the placecards in order to sit side by side. He shoved my chair under me with a refreshing disregard for ceremony, and we talked on.

"Goffman was really a symbolic interactionist," he murmured, "and a dramaturge. He understood that our interactions with each other are symbolic, and that their purposes are twofold: one, to further our aims. And, two, and crucially, to save face."

"Go on."

"Here's the great thing Goffman revealed: Life is lived in the evocative tense."

"What does that mean?"

"That the self is situationally constructed. That, by and large, people are not, as they imagine themselves to be, governed by an inner core of values."

"That's only half right," I whispered. "Do you believe that literally? You wouldn't deny that some of our values are absolute and do determine how we act. There are certain things you and I know we simply would not do."

"Yes," he whispered, "you think that, of course. Goffman illustrates how you're wrong. Goffman shows the ways in which our rational ideas about our values and goals are always secondary to ego protection. What makes him fascinating is his depiction of a huge variety of face-saving mechanisms."

"No no," I whispered. "In social situations, yes. But in more serious matters, ultimately our values are going to determine what we do. They just are."

"You'd be surprised," he whispered.

"Well, no I would not," I whispered, with that urgent womanly sincerity that bespeaks sexual arousal.

He countered with a frankly masculine grin, appreciative, indulgent, and calm.

My underpants seemed dampish. Actually, why were we whispering? This was a dinner table and we were entitled to have dinner conversation! "Look," I whispered. "Here's something I know: I am not going to kill. I mean unless it was in some extreme self-defense situation, to save my own life, and that's just normal. Otherwise, even if I felt abused or victimized, believe me, I'm not murdering anybody."

"Sure you are, if your ego is sufficiently threatened. You'll suddenly find that you—"

"Are you actually maintaining, in a more than theoretical way, that people, in real life, if their ?ego is threatened,' will—"

"What I'm saying," he whispered, "and all I'm saying, is that people are more collaborators with each other than they are individuals guided by a moral compass. What Goffman demonstrates are the myriad ways this gets played out—the number of gestures we make, the repertoire of gestures—"

Somewhere there was a musical clinking and a thick silence fell. I whispered, "I understand you're trying to say that we—"

"Hel-lo?" a woman—our hostess!—sang.

As one, we looked up. All down the table, faces were smiling at us in the candlelight, the fresh pink faces of twenty unfamiliar, apparently friendly but completely uninformed persons, waiting in vain for my beloved and me to find our way back to their pale and irrelevant world. After a long moment spent gazing at us, they applauded. Of course we ate almost nothing, he and I. When the pumpkin pie and apple crisp were passed, we were still animated, still fresh. Candles low and guttering. The other guests, strangers all, lolling around us obtunded with tryptophan. We talked on.

I tasted a tiny drip of whipped cream with my finger. He shifted his foot and I glanced under the table. Brand-new highly polished palomino-colored wingtip. He rested its edge against the edge of my boot, and I can tell you I felt his heart beating like mine, through two layers of shoe leather and hose.

What People are Saying About This

Kurt Anderson
Is Jane Shapiro Laurie Colwin's evil twin, or did she somehow manage to channel Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe simultaneously? Either way, The Dangerous Husband is a singular achievement, the first of a whole new genre-postfeminist slapstick tragicomedy—as entertaining as it is disturbing. Author of Turn of the Century

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The Dangerous Husband 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book because it struck a chord with me...as it will with many women. Yes, it was exaggerated, for the purpose of humor, but there were many basic truths in this story of a woman who is amazed and overwhelmed by her husband. It was indeed funny and fun to read. A breath of fresh air.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Falling in love is for the very young so how at 40 she wonders why she, a logical photographer, loves a wealthy former professor turn wannabe novelist, Dennis. She quickly marries Dennis in a hundred yard dash of a courtship, expecting to live happily ever after with him.

However, their short courtship never prepared her to her new spouse¿s Gerald Ford-like clumsiness. Dennis is perpetually falling, crashing, and smashing into things and her. He has smacked his wife's toe with a skillet, accidentally twists her neck, drops her on a solid floor, hugs her into a broken arm and ends up by bestowing his spouse with a concussion. Her body color is head to toe black and blue. Now frightened of being in the same city with her beloved, she soon learns that he goes through wives as people go through shoes. She knows that for her to survive her loving but lethal mate, she must kill him first.

THE DANGEROUS HUSBAND is a great satire that takes readers down a surreal universe where love is the most dangerous emotion known. The readers will continuously laugh at the slapstick humor that spices through the suspense of what will happen next. Dennis is so pathetic that he is purposely drawn as a caricature of the caring hunk that stars in most romance novels. However, the narrator owns the novel with her ironic asides that begin with a deep abiding love but converts to preservation that would astound the Survivor crowd. As with her wonderful MOONDOG, Jane Shapiro exhibits her weird wit that leaves the reader with a loving look at ¿The War of the Roses¿.

Harriet Klausner