January 8, 2003. A pleasant house with a river view in a charming town not far from New York City. Julie Metz, a freelance graphic designer, is working on a book cover in her home office. Her husband Henry, a writer, is resting upstairs. Their six-and-a-half-year-old daughter Liza is in school.
And then death enters — Henry’s felled by a pulmonary embolism. He was just 44, the same age as his widow. They had been married for 13 years.
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Happily married? Well, they entertained a lot — Henry loved to cook, adored a crowd, needed to be the center of attention. But they often fought. And Julie’s taking both Wellbutrin and Celexa.
Grief is a pure emotion — in novels. Non-fiction is messier, and in “Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal,” much messier. As Julie’s brother tidies up Henry’s affairs, he discovers Henry had accumulated $40,000 in credit card debt in less than a year. Julie stops her medication. She feels fine. “The source of my calm,” she concludes, “was Henry’s absence.” A month after Henry’s death, this is not an entirely reassuring discovery.
Julie takes a lover, a young artist. Five months after Henry’s death, he tells Julie she shouldn’t feel guilty about finding herself in his bed — while Henry was researching his book on the West Coast, “there was a woman.” And then more tumbles out. There were others. Worst of all, Henry was screwing around closer to home. Like: right down the block, with Cathy — large-breasted, churchy Cathy, mother of Liza’s best friend, a neighbor for God’s sake, a so-called friend. Indeed, Liza was playing at Cathy’s house right now.
How enraged is Julie?
A gun was too swift, too merciful. I wanted a sword to slit her end to end, and then, with a hundred more cuts, dice her body into small pieces and leave the bloodied, quivering remains of skin, muscle and soulless guts on her front lawn, arranged in a gruesome scarlet letter.
I couldn’t kill Henry anymore, since he was, conveniently enough, dead.
The “betrayal” section starts around page 90. Anyone think we’ll get to “renewal” soon? No way — Julie has too much to discover. And then confront, because she tracks down every lover and confronts her. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. To read a Q&A with the author –“The irony is that I’m quiet and shy” — click here.]
Here is where I started talking back to the book. With the exception of Cathy, I find the other women largely blameless. Oh, they knew Henry was married. But a lot of women know their lovers are married; they’re not necessarily hoping to turn affairs into marriages. As Helen Gurley Brown once wrote about the “wronged” wife, “She’s got a problem, but you [the mistress] aren’t it.” Julie Metz’s real target, it seems to me, is her late husband.
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She does spend many pages railing at the man who betrayed and manipulated her. But before it burns itself out, rage feeds on itself — Julie has time, energy and anger enough to pick every scab with Henry’s lovers. She finds the process worthwhile, for she comes to feel that her husband’s shame and guilt over his secret life might have had something to do with his death.
“Perfection” is an addictive book — don’t start it if you need to do anything for a few hours. Metz holds nothing back; she’s a wailing widow, and an eloquent one. But with each smarmy revelation, I flashed on her young daughter. And I recalled a review I read decades ago about “Heartburn,” Nora Ephron’s thinly disguised novel about her marriage to the notoriously unfaithful journalist Carl Bernstein. That duo had two small sons when “Heartburn” became a bestseller and, later, a Mike Nichols movie. “What Carl did was stupid,” the reviewer concluded. “What Nora did was child abuse.”
I don’t think “Perfection” sacrifices an innocent child in order for the wronged mother to heal because Metz deals directly with this question in the book. And I cheered when Mr. Renewal shows up — the guy’s a saint. Mostly, though, Henry’s e-mails and diary entries and Julie’s conversations with his lovers had me reeling.
Like every new book I read, “Perfection” gives me fifty pages more than I needed. Metz has some Deep Thoughts about fidelity and gender, and she finds an expert who’s willing to engage with her, and she shares it all. I wouldn’t miss them if they vanished. And the book ends with a dream. I like to think her editor begged her to reconsider, but was overruled. Note to memoirists: Spare us your dreams.
But these are quibbles. “Perfection” takes us — deep — into a train wreck of a marriage and the long climb out. I couldn’t look away.