" 'Teal wasn't a good look for Hillary, post-Gennifer Flowers,' " brassy Selma insists, " 'and I don't think it'd be for you, either. . . . Wear red. Red says you're strong and you're not going to take it.' "
But Richard, Sylvie's husband, is only a senator, not the president, so she probably has more wardrobe options than Hillary did. Sylvie wonders: "Did he expect congratulations . . . because, in spite of all the speculation, he hadn't appropriated money to pay the girl and she turned out to be qualified for the job he'd helped her find? Was this a triumph because he hadn't raped anyone?"
Sylvie is never happy in front of crowds or a camera. Her "it could be worse" life boils down to misery (tempered by the relief of stretch pants) and the victim's shame. A young woman reporter has only one question: Why? Why did you stand by your man at that press conference? (In teal or not?):
She thought about explaining, or trying to - that if it wasn't her up there, it would have been her daughters Diana and Lizzie (whom she wanted to spare), and that she loved her husband . . . in a way that a woman as young as the one in front of her would never be able to understand. The life they'd built together, the history . . . that meant something. But she knew that to Mandy Miller from the Miami Herald, Sylvie was a symbol, a feminist heroine who'd failed her.
All Sylvie can tell Mandy Miller is, " 'I'm sorry I disappointed you.' "
In Sylvie and Richard's marriage, as in the subplot of Diana's agonized infidelity, Weiner examines the teeming life that thrives on the underside of lives that appear rock-solid in public. Her readers will welcome the laugh-out-loud ache with which she excavates the complexities of relationships: between long-married couples, between mothers and daughters, between two sisters - Dr. Diana, the overachiever, and Lizzie, rehab-waif-cum-photographer.
In Weiner's fiction, the personal trumps the philosophical. So I must pose a personal question. When Richard pleads for forgiveness with " 'We're a family, Sylvie,' " she snaps back: " 'We're a photo op.' " Why would a vibrant woman have married such a crashing bore? Sylvie's parents were rich, powerful, and loaded with expectations, but she did not want to emulate them. It wasn't love of power that drew her to Richard Woodruff, a man with a teleprompter for a heart, a man who leaves his pants inside-out on the floor without prying the underwear loose.
" 'Do you trust me?' he asks, with convenient prescience, on their second date. Wrong question. He should have asked, "Do you want to become a professional dieter, to stand behind me on podiums, mummified in Spanx, nodding your head like a bobblehead doll?"
"She took care of Richard," Weiner writes of Sylvie, "and it was a job that left little room for taking care of anyone else - not a dog, not herself. Sometimes not even her daughters."
In alternating sections, both Lizzie and Diana force Sylvie's own moral reckoning while they confront, respectively, drugs and lust. Mommy-guilt is leavened by acute, humorous observations that will make Weiner's fans feel, once again, befriended. She deserves our love: She holds a latte up to the relational discontent, frustration, and weight gain that women experience - To Life! - and we suck it down and come up feeling validated. (Yes, there is such a thing as relational weight gain.)
Weiner is a writer of innate brilliance, yet Fly Away Home could have been better crafted. The embarrassingly cliched sex scene in which we first meet Diana and her stud muffin made me hope that at least one of them would fall into a piece of medical equipment. Sylvie's best friend, Ceil, is introduced as having a face "as round and sweet as a bowl of rice pudding." What a texture! Is there medicine for that? When Ceil phones Sylvie to deliver the bad news in a shaking voice, Sylvie says hello, then goes into a five-page reverie (did she put Ceil on hold?) on how the two women first met.
The point is, it's hard to root for characters who aren't dumb but act that way. Fortunately, these early bumps aside, Fly Away Home is a well-tuned hymn to the resilience of women in the wake of heartache, regret, and the failed promises of Botox.
Helen W. Mallon writes about the implications of her Quaker childhood at http://hmallon-ftheeiwasateenagequaker.blogspot.com/