Small Acts of Sex and Electricity
by Lise Haines
Published by Unbridled Books
256 pages, 2006
Literal Wife Swapping
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
Mattie, an out of work art and antiques appraiser, answers a call for help from her oldest and best friend, Jane. Jane’s grandmother has just died, leaving her Santa Monica beachfront home to Jane and her sister, the granddaughters she virtually raised after their father committed suicide and their mother retreated behind doors, both physical and psychological.
Jane needs help dealing with the loss and with the sale of the “family” home, so Mattie flies off to assist with appraising and organizing the valuable collections that grandmother Franny -- for all purposes a virtual Auntie Mame -- has collected. The problem is, Mattie also has a serious loss to contend with. Franny was her lifeline, as well. When Mattie and Jane first met, they were eight years old and the former was staying in a rented home down the beach with her dysfunctional and unstable parents. Ergo, Franny soon came to play an important parental role in her life. Not surprisingly then, Mattie dreads coming back to this familiar place and those childhood memories in order to help dismantle the beloved home, preparing it for sale and dispensing with its previous owners’ possessions.
There’s another reason she’s reluctant to come. Seeing Jane’s husband, Mike, is too much of a wrench. Mattie has always loved him. In fact, had Jane not intervened, Mike and Mattie would probably have wound up as a couple; Mike seems to feel the same way. Why didn’t they connect back then? Because Jane is not an easy person to say no to. Because she’s a knockout. Because then we would not have a story.
Now Mattie is 35 and has never been married and she’s still peering in at the windows of apparent marital bliss. Originally she had thought that Jane would soon tire of Mike, as she usually had with possessions easy to come by. When that happened, Mattie would be standing by to reclaim the Mike she was just getting to know when he was usurped. Now, however, the family has grown to four, and the daughters, 14 and four, are not so easy to dispense with. Although there have been a few indiscretions on both sides, the marriage seems to be holding together and Mattie appears resigned to a life without Mike.
Yet within hours of her arrival, Jane slips out of the house, seemingly leaving Mattie behind to take over her children, her husband and her life. Only a few minutes after Jane’s chaotic three in the morning exit in her grandmother’s old Jaguar, Mattie has slipped into the conjugal bed. In between periodic phone calls from the real wife, the newly conjoined couple attempt to keep their sexual activity from the distraught daughters, with Mattie stumbling around the home, breaking more expensive objects than she catalogues while feeding the abandoned daughters junk food and takeout and driving to hotel trysts with dad.
Haines, who has written another novel, In My Sister’s Country, has perfected the art of the sentence fragment. The result, after you get used to it, mirrors the thoughts and actions of a woman who is living moment-by-moment, without the incentive to get to the end of her thoughts, let alone to the consequences of her actions. Finally everything flies apart, as things always do when they’re not nailed down and a strong wind arrives.
While the plot may appear mundane and uninspired, the author’s sparse but pithy prose will probably have you smiling from time to time. It’s often engaging and clever. For example, when Mattie tackles a cereal box, trying to open the toy entombed within its hygienic wrapping for the impatient young Mona, she makes this observation:
Fortunately “getting in” won’t be a problem for readers, who will find this novel very accessible.
Sometimes apparently small acts can lead to large consequences; this seems to be the message here. But it all comes right in the end. | January 2007
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.