by Elizabeth Dewberry; San Diego, Harcourt Trade Publishers, 2006, 288 pages, $24
Dr. Barber is clinical director and medical director of the Ulster County Mental Health Department, Kingston, New York.
As mental health professionals, we are always striving to put ourselves in the place of our patients. What if we could actually hear someone else's thoughts? And what if those thoughts perfectly resonated with a life-stage issue that we ourselves were going through? Elizabeth Dewberry has crafted these what-ifs into a deliciously fascinating study in this novel.
In His Lovely Wife, we enter the world of Ellen Baxter, the attractive 30-something wife of an older, Nobel prize-winning physicist. Ellen is a trophy wife and is not too secure in her role or identity. In the few days depicted in the novel, Ellen accompanies her husband to a physics meeting in Paris. Arriving at the Ritz Hotel, she is mistaken by the paparazzi for Princess Diana on the day before Diana's death. Following the well-known tunnel car crash, Ellen finds herself drawn to the site of the tragic accident and begins to hear the voice of the recently deceased Diana in her head. Listening to Diana's internal musings about the meaning of her life and her relationships with men and with her mother helps crystallize Ellen's own doubts about her identity, role, and marriage.
Ellen's existential crisis takes her on a journey in the short period covered by the novel, and her internal dialogue with Diana guides her transformation. The author weaves details about Princess Diana's life and death and her ruminations on love, mothers, wives, women, beauty, and superstring theory all into the narrative. Dewberry also manages to address these big topics without seeming superficial, stereotypical, or trite.
In a conversation with a man she has just met, Ellen's musings on what it would be like to look at a photon become more personal. "You would have to know something about photons . . . you could see the aspect of the photon that you wanted to see—its wave function or its particle function—and that would be all that you saw. And I think most people go through their whole lives that way, not able to take in the whole picture…. So a lot of women go through life with the sense that all they are, in most people's minds, is the husband's wife, or sometimes their children's mother … I mean, even Diana … imagine being the most photographed woman in the world and being frustrated because nobody ever sees the whole picture of you." Although I didn't find myself identifying with much about Ellen's life story, or Diana's for that matter, I was nonetheless drawn into their world and wholly taken by their concerns.
The novel does not present a neat resolution to Ellen's crisis, and this in itself is a satisfying thing. On all counts, this is a delightful and engrossing book about mothers, memory, ideals of female beauty, and life-stage crises.