- - Friday, December 28, 2012

By Susan Richards Shreve
Norton, $25.95, 298 pages

Never name a girl child Zelda. That’s just asking for trouble because we know only one Zelda, and we all know what happened to her. And Zelda (“Zee”) Mallory, the center of the novel if not its narrator-protagonist, is one mixed-up lady, although it takes a long time for that to become clear. We focus mainly on the travails of Lucy Painter, a very single mother of two who moves in across Wichita Avenue from the Mallorys.

It’s 1973, and there’s madness in the air. The Watergate hearings are being held on Capitol Hill (one of the neighborhood husbands is counsel to the Senate committee investigating the break-in and cover-up) and all of Washington is buzzing about the growing scandal. But all of Wichita Avenue is buzzing about Lucy, the new neighbor with two children but no husband.

Lucy had just moved to Washington from New York City, where she also had two children and no husband, courtesy of one Reuben Frank, the father of 12-year-old Maggie Painter and her 3-year-old brother. Lucy is a successful writer-illustrator of children’s books, and Reuben is her editor. Their very first editorial conference led directly to bed, and while Reuben continues to pledge undying love for Lucy and the children who know him as Uncle Reuben, he somehow neglects his promise to divorce his wife.

Halfway through his dozen-year affair with Lucy, Reuben and his wife have a child of their own, so, unlike Lucy, the reader knows that even though he somehow manages to spend at least two evenings a week with his “other family,” he is not going to leave his wife. Let’s just say Reuben Frank is not the most attractive character in the book. But then Lucy is hardly, to use a term not in use in 1973, the novel’s most centered person.

She has moved to Washington because her tenants have left the house she owns on Wichita Avenue, the same house where, at the age of 12, she had found her father hanging from a rafter with a noose around his neck. Of course, she tells no one this fact, certainly not the grandchildren he never met.

While none of her new neighbors has quite that mixed-up a background, despite their ostensibly comfortable lives, they all, like Richard Nixon, have their problems. One neighbor is seriously depressed because her husband wants another child and she doesn’t, another drinks too much and several of the marriages are on shaky ground, including that of the Mallorys.

From all surface signs, Zelda is Miss Perfect. She’s the organizer, the model mother and wife, and her front porch is the command center of Wichita Avenue. But like the late great Zelda, hers is a house of cards that begins to topple when she begins to lure Maggie Painter away from her own mother. Halloween movies have nothing on this book.

Susan Shreve has been writing novels (and many other books) for quite some time — “You Are the Love of My Life” is her 14th — and she has the territory down cold. A cultural archaeologist couldn’t pin down the inhabitants any more accurately. For example, after her widower neighbor August Russ, with whom she has never been close, falls off a ladder and is seriously hurt, Zelda appropriates the twin roles of best friend and most concerned neighbor. In the waiting room, she is approached by the doctor:

“’Ms. Mallory,’ Dr. Ziegler sat down beside Zee gripping her hand — gripping was the word she used later when she told Lane and Josie.

Zee slipped her shoes back on, sliding the People magazine in which she’d been reading ‘Death Notices’ into her bag, wondering, if August should die, would he be included in the death notices in People since falling two stories with a ladder had the kind of original ring that People was inclined to consider news.”

One of the most impressive things about this book is the author’s ability to create two such disparate characters as Lucy Painter and Zee Mallory. The former is fey, seemingly — but not really — unmoored to convention, and the latter is just the opposite. Both are great characters in whom the reader maintains an abiding interest throughout the book.

As we learn, Lucy isn’t the only one who is lying through her perfect teeth. But that should not come as a surprise, because, as the author recently wrote (in a blog about this book): “Invention is still an automatic reflexive response with me. But I know the risks. Lies — often a result of shame told to disguise failure or exalt success — have a life of their own. But luckily I write fiction and keep the story on the page where it belongs. I explore this notion of the lies families tell one another and the facades they try to maintain in my latest novel, ‘You Are the Love of My Life’.”

Wichita Avenue in upper Northwest D.C. may be a geographical fiction, but its truths, as revealed by the author, are definitely real — and universal.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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