This slight and elliptical portrait of a marriage, set in southern California, mimics the brittle repartee of Joan Didion's early fiction, and those are the good parts. Otherwise, the author of No Guarantees (1990, published under the name Melissa Lentricchia) fails to shape this narrative into anything significant. In fact, Malouf seems to just give up at the end, providing several different and equally fanciful endings. But none of this self-conscious play disguises a novel with no direction. Aside from their terse dialogue, Ernest Warner and Joan Stuart are less interesting than their phantom parents: His include a cutting, campy Hollywood voice-over actor father who lives with an equally sharp roommate, and a mother who returns stateside from self-exile in Paris for her husband's funeral, only to announce that she's not really completely lesbian. No less colorful are Joan's doctor father and her glamorous mother, who sets up her daughter with a male prostitute on her 21st birthday so that she'll be properly schooled in the boudoir. No wonder Joan doesn't want children; she even heads to Mexico for an abortion in the early '60s. A geologist, Ernest can't penetrate his wife's cool exterior—she's a smart MBA who owns a successful dress shop in Palm Springs, where they build a beautiful house. Ernest dallies with others, meanwhile, loses his eye in a fishing accident, and seeks renewal in the desert. Joan welcomes menopause, and throws her family mementoes into the sea. Together, they attend a murder trial. A fiction that mirrors its subjects: passionless and pointless.
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