Wife Living Dangerously
by Sara Susannah Katz
(Warner Books, $6.99,PG-13) ISBN 0-446-61268-5
While waiting for Desperate Housewives to resume its regular airing and for The Tuesday Night Bookclub to catch you in its grips, how on earth are you going to satisfy your sinful cravings for the secret lives of bored suburban housewives? Wife Living Dangerously may be one solution. But be warned: it is nowhere near as titillating or salacious as the televised accounts.

In direct contrast with and perhaps even in rebellion against, her debt-ridden, fun-loving single mother Julia Flanagan has always been a good girl. Married with three children, she lives in a small Midwestern college town, where neighbors exchange cookies and car pools and long-term marriages are tested with short-lived affairs. Unlike others of her ilk, Julia balances her family commitments with paid hours at the Bentley Institute, a museum which houses the world's largest collection of erotica, sex toys and sexual paraphernalia. This is not enough to add joie de vivre to her monotonous existence. In fact, when playing true confessions with her suburban friends, Julia rarely comes up with a peccadillo, nothing worse than, say, a vague interest in the UPS man. The novel charts how she goes from good and boring to bad and, well, boring.

With her husband Michael spending more time at work and with his newly formed rock band, Julia is beginning to feel ignored. Determined to hold their marriage together, she learns to sing only to learn that he prefers a twenty-something nymphet join his band. Frustrated, she finds an outlet in a gorgeous, unattached English professor. In the tradition of courtly love and the medieval knights he writes about, Evan Delaney gives Julia the compliments and attention her husband neglects. She tries to distract her wayward thoughts by collecting cookie jars. Pretty soon, however, she's contemplating a full-blown affair.

Some might find adultery an immediate put-off, but morality wasn't the biggest problem for me. I take issue with the incomplete character arc and the unconvincing denouement. Julia is self-aware enough to know that her current problems stem partly from her childhood. But the question of her absent and unknown father isn't a major preoccupation until the final scenes of the novel. Consequently, her resolution on this particular matter springs from nowhere. Nor were her endless ruminations about her marriage and her constant hesitations about adultery enough to capture my attention. Which is perhaps why I was so annoyed when, after sleepless nights over Evan, Julia finally comes to a decision. Although she is smugly satisfied that her adventures bring her new self-insights, I would beg to differ.

I didn't exactly warm to the other characters, either. There is such a contrast between what Michael says and what he does that I decided Julia just couldn't trust him. Evan, on the other hand, is too much of a fantasy man, a mirror reflection of Julia's desires with no challenges and demands of his own.

Evan aside, this slow-moving but well-wrought depiction of a marriage at risk offers a realistic slice of life, a convincing and lyrical portrait of a wavering conscience and a generous dose of wry, understated humor. Readers whose tastes run that way could find worse than Wife Living Dangerously. But I prefer to give a more substantial recommendation to something more satisfying.

--Mary Benn

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