A dying academic, an oblivious house husband, a self-centered Southern writer, and a grieving ex-editor suffer much angst in Godwin's (Father Melancholy's Daughter, 1991, etc.) latest domestic drama — a meditation on marriage in which the prose is always supple but also more than a little dull. Haughty 58-year-old Magda Danvers, an English professor who's still resting on the laurels of the one book she published decades earlier, is holding court from her deathbed, and a gaggle of academics — suck-ups, gossips, parodies all — pay their respects. Magda calls her ovarian cancer her "Gargoyle" and the last months of her life her "Final Examination." As she decays, she is waited upon by her husband, Francis Lake, who is 12 years her junior and gave up the priesthood for her. For 25 years Magda has earned the money while unambitious, nonintrospective Francis has kept house and contented himself with basking in her limelight. Alice Henry, whose baby has just choked on his umbilical cord, finds a peculiar solace in Magda's sickroom. Passive-aggressive Alice can't stomach her novelist husband, Hugo, who's 16 years her senior, and wonders if perhaps she married him because she was in love with his writing — after all, she was his editor. As she becomes closer to Magda and Francis and ponders their unlikely union, she falls in love with Francis, who seems totally unaware of her intentions. Hugo, meanwhile, baffled by Alice's hatred, is fighting off writers' block and learns, to his dismay, that his son from a previous marriage is gay. As each undergoes a self-reckoning, Hugo compares the stages of writing a novel with the stages of a marriage, and Magda, referring to a poem by Donne, welcomes death as her "good husband." Godwin is more enamored, and convinced, of Magda's and Hugo's brilliance than her readers will be. Polished, often incisive, but pompous and obvious as well; with none of the bracing acuity of Sue Miller's For Love, which also put relations between the sexes under a microscope. Particularly disappointing for a novelist of Godwin's stature.
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