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Writing Well Is The Wronged Wife's Revenge In 'See Now Then'

Jamaica Kincaid, author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, lives in Vermont.
Kenneth Noland
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Jamaica Kincaid, author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, lives in Vermont.

On one level, See Now Then, Jamaica Kincaid's first novel in a decade, is a lyrical, interior meditation on time and memory by a devoted but no longer cherished wife and mother going about the daily business of taking care of her home and family in a small New England town. But it is also one of the most damning retaliations by a jilted wife since Nora Ephron's Heartburn. See Now Then reads as if Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf had collaborated on a heartbroken housewife's lament that reveals an impossible familiarity with Heartburn and Evan S. Connell's Mrs. Bridge.

As we've come to expect from the author of Mr. Potter, The Autobiography of My Mother and Annie John, Kincaid not only mines details and raw emotions from her own life, but deliberately smudges the lines between fact and fiction and past and present to create artistic shading, as if drawing with charcoal. Like Kincaid, her "dear Mrs. Sweet" came to America on a "banana boat" from Antigua after an unhappy, fatherless childhood. And like Kincaid's former husband, Allen Shawn, "dear Mr. Sweet" is a composer who teaches at the local college, suffers from various phobias, grew up in a sophisticated Manhattan household, and leaves his wife for a younger musician.

Living in the writer Shirley Jackson's former house in Bennington, Vt., with her husband and son and daughter (here named Persephone and Heracles, from Greek mythology), Mrs. Sweet is what writer Laurie Colwin called a domestic genius — a woman "who loved making sophisticated meals for small children and loved their company and she loved gardens." She knits, darns socks and cooks poached veal with tuna fish sauce (though her husband's tastes run to "toast Chernobyl" and instant coffee). She orders exotic seeds, irons the laundry, reads to her children and retreats to her little room off the kitchen to think and write about time, "that collection of events saturated with feelings and smells and the way someone remembered them and the way something, anything, felt like." In this private space "she came alive in all her tenses, then, now, then again."

What's remarkable about See Now Then is its balance of the prosaic (Ninja Turtles and Maxwell House coffee) and the profound (reflections on the ultimate incomprehensibility of how time works). In the course of Mrs. Sweet's cyclical musings — in which she struggles to untangle and make sense of her past and present and understand where time and her devotion have taken her — she channels the perspectives of others. She imagines her son's annoyance when she is late to meet his school bus, resentful of all the hours "she just sits in that room writing about her goddamn mother, as if people had never had a mother who wanted to kill them before they were born." Repeatedly, she projects herself into her husband's disappointment, evoking his despair at spending his "precious life" with his loud, enthusiastic, increasingly zaftig, off-the-banana-boat wife and his irritation with his noisy, hyperactive son, but "so grateful for my lovely female students, whom I fall in love with."

Kincaid is honest enough to allow bitterness to ooze through her incantatory prose bandages, with stinging references to Mr. Sweet's small stature, his phobic father with "two households, two wives," and the checks that land in their mailbox, all for her, presumably royalties for her books — and implicitly not for his abstruse nocturnes composed for 100 lyres, her comprehension of which "is not without its misunderstandings."

What's worse than being told that a relationship is over and a mate has moved on? "I never loved you." Hell may indeed have no fury like a woman scorned, but as Ephron and Kincaid's books about marital heartache demonstrate, writing well just might be the best revenge.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.