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.