The texture of daily life


Isabel Fonseca

<em>Chatto & Windus, 320pp, £15.99</em>

Ideally, a book should be judged without reference to the author's life, but it is hard not to be distracted by the fact that Isabel Fonseca is married to Martin Amis, and given that this is the reason many readers will buy her debut novel it is not entirely irrelevant.

Attachment focuses on Jean Hubbard, the wife of an advertising executive, Mark. Like Fonseca, Jean is 46, American and Oxford-educated, and lives in the shadow of her successful husband. The parallels between Fonseca and Jean are ob vious but, ultimately, tedious to examine too closely. In any case, dowdy Jean, with her deliberately matronly nursery-rhyme surname, is definitely not a self-portrait.

The Hubbards have been married 20 years. They have one daughter, who is on the verge of leaving home, and they divide their time between Camden Town and St Jacques, a fictional island in the Indian Ocean. In the very first chapter, Jean discovers a secret email account belonging to her husband, which contains a slew of pornographic images of "Giovana", Mark's tarty young mistress. Unbelievably, given the repressed, conventional character she turns out to be, Jean logs on as Mark and for the next three months exchanges dozens of "juicy" emails with Giovana. The novel explains Jean's behaviour thus: "She was acting almost robotically, but she couldn't stop. The moral high ground held no appeal - and no information." Perhaps, more importantly, the moral high ground did not hold an attention-grabbing plot.

From this lurid stepping stone, the novel jumps into a number of diverting streams, which include Jean's breast cancer scare, a brief fling with Dan, her husband's colleague, a wistful flirtation with her first love, her father's serious illness and the unsettling reappearance of Sophie de Vilmorin, daughter of Mark's first girlfriend. All these stories are interesting and the way Fonseca tells them is fluent and readable, but none of them is fully developed. I was frustrated not to find out more about Giovana (about whom Jean reveals an oddly male lack of curiosity beyond her gorgeous body) or, in particular, the stalkerish Sophie. Sophie's story could make a fascinating novel in itself, yet is only glanced over at intervals, then expanded and despatched with unseemly haste in the last few pages of the book.

There is a tentativeness in the plotting that reflects Jean's character. She dips her toes into low-life scenarios that wouldn't be out of place in one of Fonseca's husband's novels, yet she never fully dives in. This pattern is established in her youth; as a teenager in New York, she wanders frequently through Washington Square and is thrilled by the "adult consideration" of the drug dealers offering her sensemilla, one of whom becomes something of a friend: "One afternoon, worried Wayne might stop asking her, she bought a nickel bag. When he invited her back to his place to smoke it, she said no and never returned to Washington Square." Understandable, perhaps, but in the rest of her life, too, she has been tentative. She doesn't become the lawyer she wanted to be; she doesn't marry the man she should have done; her job as a health columnist, though successful, seems half-hearted.

Fonseca's talent lies in describing the texture of daily life: the mango with a "skin like sunset", the pizza boxes that open "like laptops" as her daughter lounges in front of the television. She is good on the sweep of history and the cultural climate of previous times: there are interesting snapshots of Oxford and New York in the Seventies and early Eighties. The island of St Jacques is vividly drawn, although at times the point of this exotic setting is unclear: to illustrate that Jean and Mark, strangers in a strange place, have also become strangers to each other? The contrast of nature's beauty with the grubbiness of human interaction? The fall from paradise?

Telling details of character, particularly male characters, are captured well - the way the sleazy Lothario Dan misspells the word "panettone" in a note left to Jean explaining the seductive breakfast he has gone to fetch; how Larry, her first love, pulls off his ripped shirt to examine the damage and show her his chest because "he thinks he's plain so he works on his body". Occasionally her phrasing is foolish - Dan is reminiscent of Ted Hughes, the "great northern bard" - but all her characters are solidly pinned down, all except Jean, who remained inscrutable to me. I couldn't equate her strait-laced persona with her porn odyssey and her brief transformation into Dan's sex kitten. Yet her thoughtful reflections on ageing and love, hummingbirds and kestrels, Dante, motherhood, New York cab drivers, Camden Town drycleaners, on whatever she turns her eye to, are engaging. Inside the exhibitionist plot devices, a more delicate novel about a subtle and complex character is struggling to emerge. Terror and Consent: the Wars for the 21st Century, Philip Bobbitt, Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, 688pp, £25Fiction

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically