by Kate Jennings
Published by Fourth Estate
192 pages, 2002
Hazards of the Flesh
Reviewed by Lisa Tucker
A novel about Alzheimer's disease sounds like the literary equivalent of brussels sprouts. It may be good for you -- perhaps even morally uplifting -- but can it be a good read?
Two novels published in 2002 -- Flesh Tones by M.J. Rose and Moral Hazard by Kate Jennings -- are set in New York City and told by female narrators. Genny of Flesh Tones is 38, a successful professional at PBS, producer of an art-appreciation program for children. Forty-something Cath of Moral Hazard is also successful, a speech writer for a prominent Wall Street investment firm. Both women have experienced love affairs; both women were lucky enough to end up with their greatest loves. For Genny, he is brilliant artist Slade Gabriel; for Cath, a gentle optimist known only as Bailey. That Slade Gabriel and Bailey are significantly older has never been a problem -- indeed, it was part of the romance for these women -- until each man begins to suffer with Alzheimer's.
It's no surprise that both novels grapple with what love is and what love requires of us. The surprise is that this is only part of these stories, and that both stories are so compulsively readable.
Moral Hazard is a dark comedy, as focused on the high stakes world of Wall Street as well as the heartbreak of Alzheimer's. Cath may have taken the job to have money to care for Bailey, but once on the Street, she finds herself -- the "bedrock feminist, unreconstructed left-winger" -- fascinated by the personalities and power structures; performing a witty analysis of the euphemisms of corporate life even as she begins to play the game herself. She is dead on when reciting the financial buzzwords of the go-go late 90s: "pro-active," "paradigm," "added value," "outside the box," "a rising tide lifts all boats." Throughout the novel, her voice is infused with this wry intelligence. As she tells us, "I'd rather eat garden worms than be earnest or serious. Or sentimental."
Flesh Tones is categorized as suspense, and it is that, but much more. Genny's love affair with Slade Gabriel before he develops Alzheimer's is the focus of the book, and this relationship is erotic indeed. She wakes one night to find that he has been studying her, wanting to paint her, but not in the usual sense. In a long, beautiful scene, he brushes paint on her body "so softly he could have been whispering against [her] skin," turning her into a gorgeous flower. It is the passion of art that Genny loves in Slade Gabriel and discovers in herself, a passion she had only glimpsed in the commerce-driven world of her art dealer father. Even in the courtroom where the present time in the novel is set -- after Genny is arrested for her role in Slade Gabriel's death -- she is keenly aware of the "the dirty tarp stretched across the wall hiding the mural of Justice;" the "sense of hyper-reality" to the proceedings:
"If they were paintings, the people would be larger than life, their expressions exaggerated to the point of the grotesque..."
Moral Hazard and Flesh Tones are finally and undoubtedly love stories: not the newly-married, happily-ever-after kind so common in fiction, but the all-too-real, long-term kind, full of shared history and the necessary compromises that break our hearts. Eventually Alzheimer's will steal Gabriel's ability to paint and change gentle Bailey into someone Cath barely recognizes. Both women will face agonizing choices, but these novels can't be reduced to these choices any more than life can be reduced to loss. | December 2002
Lisa Tucker lives in the mountains of northern New Mexico with her husband and son. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in various journals, including The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her first novel, The Song Reader is forthcoming from Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster in May 2003.