I picked this one up in the Detroit airport on a whim. Perfection (2009, Hyperion Books, 344 pages) is a memoir about a freelance graphic designer and artist whose husband, Henry, drops dead at age forty-seven. The memoir begins grippingly with that tragic moment, and then takes us through the first six months of grief and healing, including a brief affair with a younger man in their circle of friends. It picks up steam when, six months later after Henry’s death, through gossip, friends, and an email trail, Metz discovers that Henry was having an affair with a close friend and fellow resident of the upscale Long Island suburb in which they reside. Worse, this woman’s six year old daughter was best friends with the author’s own little girl. In short order, Metz discovers at least five more affairs. She has to reevaluate her life and pick up the pieces, which includes tracking down and confronting the other women, conducting her own sexual and romantic experiments, and, eventually, moving back to the city.
This is a well-written and fairly compelling memoir. It served the purpose of getting me electronics-free through takeoffs and landings. Here’s the opening bit:
It happened like this: Henry’s footsteps on the old wooden floorboards. The toilet flushing. More footsteps, perhaps on the stairs. Silence. Then the thud.
I was working downstairs in my office on a bitterly cold Wednesday afternoon. My workspace was an enclosed sunporch off our living room, the small-paned windows on three sides framing a view of the snowy hills across the road. Wrapped in a shawl, wearing fuzzy socks on my chilled feet, I continued studying the project on my computer screen. I had been a graphic designer for nearly twenty years, a freelancer, specializing in cover designs for book publishers. Today’s project was a novel about hard-luck cowboys, due yesterday, as always. I stopped fiddling with type design possibilities as I glanced at the computer clock—in an hour I would have to make a dash out to the car to pick up our six-and a half-year-old daughter Liza just before school let out at 3:10. Henry had been sick in bed all morning. There would be the freezing cold wait and the daily social milling with the other mothers on the school playground, then the quick drive home to finish my work. I’d wear my new sheepskin coat today and feel guilty about its expense on a warmer day. On second thought, the distressed sans serif type worked better with the moody image of a cowboy leaning against a split rail fence.
Suddenly my brain rewound sharply.
It wasn’t a package dropped outside by the UPS guy.
My office phone rang. Instinctively, I answered. The photographer on the line asked me how I liked the images he had emailed.
It wasn’t the cats knocking groceries off the kitchen counter.
“I can’t talk now—something bad is happening.” I ended the call abruptly.
The rooms were silent as I ran up the stairs, calling for Henry. Two of our four cats skittered out of my way, their nails clawing the wooden treads. The bedroom was empty. I raced back down the stairs.
I found Henry on his back, spread-eagled on the kitchen floor, his head a few inches from the oven broiler.
So why didn’t I love this book? While I appreciated that Metz didn’t make her marriage seem perfect in order to highlight the tragedy of the loss or the shock of the discovery of his affairs, by the end, I had a portrait of such a vile man and an awful relationship that I couldn’t figure out why on earth she was, or ever had been, with this guy. He ignored and yelled at their kid, called her moody and neurotic and insisted she stay on drugs so she wouldn’t complain about him or their marriage, was basically unemployed (he blew through an advance he had to write a book on “umami”, or perfection), overspent, flirted outrageously, and was terminally pissy. Telling the reader over and over Henry was charming, a flirt, the life of the party, is not the same as actually showing it, and I could never see the attraction.
Memoirs don’t have to showcase bad things happening to good people, or chart the personal growth that results, but this is supposed to do both, and does neither. I developed expectations based on the title and blurbs, which were reinforced by the book club questions at the end of the book (as Metz says, “I hope it will provide comfort for those women who have experienced the intense shame and loss of infidelity. I hope my book can serve as a cautionary tale for younger women as they make partner choices.”). Yet, I found myself feeling very distant from the author, never getting a sense of who she really is.
I wondered how she could fall in love with this man, who first came on to her at a party while his girlfriend stood not ten feet away. While they dated, he had an affair with his massage therapist. I wondered how on earth this guy’s marital infidelities could have surprised her. During their marriage, he struck up intense friendships with single women he would fly thousands of miles visit. At one point, he met a very young stunner at a local party and hired her to be his “spiritual guide”. None of these rang alarm bells for Metz? Really? As for “Cathy”, the mother he was having an affair with, he’d go to her house when neither kid was there, just to “hang out”. The reader is also informed later that Metz herself had an affair with a married man prior to meeting Henry. Many of these revelations come late in the book. Certainly, if I had known all of this at the beginning, the “shock” of infidelity in the marriage would have been greatly lessened, and the narrative impact, such as it was, dulled.
Obviously, many women do get into bad relationships, but what I wanted more of was an answer to the question of what needs in Metz were met by Henry. Why did she stay married to someone whom she is sexually repelled by, and describes as “smarmy”. Inchoate gesturing to their young child really doesn’t cut it in this day and age, when divorce is as common and easy as pie. Even more to the point, what did she contribute to the failure of that marriage? What were her flaws? What did her claws sink into when she let them out? The reader gets a glimpse during an argument in which Metz remarks, “I don’t know what you do all day”, pointing out that she herself, as the breadwinner, doesn’t have time for gym visits and long lunches. Not in this memoir, but in an interview, I discovered that Henry’s one published book was actually about the “male pregnancy”, a memoir about Metz’s pregnancy with their daughter: he seemed to have more pregnancy symptoms than she did. In just how many ways did he depend on her? And how burdensome did that feel? And why? Exploring that kernel, perhaps of some hidden resentment and anger, might have revealed something really interesting about the love-hate relationship Metz seemed to have with Henry, but she doesn’t go there. Or anywhere interesting, really, when it comes to her own complicity and agency in the life she co-created with him.
Metz has said she called the book “perfection”, not only as a reference to the book project Henry was working on, but to highlight the ways women are coerced into portraying their lives as perfect, leading them to downplay or ignore the flaws. Yet, at the end I felt this was a book about other people’s flaws. So, while I turned the pages to see who Henry’s next affair was with (torrid emails with lines like “I love the fact that you love me so much and I love that fact that I love you so much. I love it when the both of us are able to express this love.” made for wince inducing but entertaining reading), whether there would be a showdown at the school parking lot, or whether the author’s next date would pan out, I can’t recommend this as a meditation on grief or marriage or infidelity. It’s much closer to People magazine than to Didion.