Divorce may be no laughing matter, but in novelist Ellen Feldman's skillfull hands it becomes a wickedly funny means of looking at the marital foibles and extramarital hijinks, the romantic hopes and sexual connivings of Manhattan's upwardyly mobile professionals. Here are the people who own Frank Stella prints, BMWs and Park Avenue apartments; the people who eat in the restaurants on Columbus Avenue and in Tribeca, who buy there Christmas presents at MOMA and Tiffany's, who take cottages in Nantucket for their summer vacations and debate the virtues of the Carribean and skiing at Gstaad for their Christmas holidays; the same people whose adolescent children shop in boutiques in the East Fifties and who inherit their mother's maids.
They also get divorced. And to help them obtain--or save--top dollar, they come flocking to divorce lawyer Emily Brandt, wearing their grievances on their sleeves and carrying their broken hearts in their pocketbooks. Now in her thirties, Emily once dreamed of doing great things for civil liberties, just as her her own ex, Jake, an editor for a slick magazine, once dreamed of writing the Great American Novel. By living with another woman's husband, Emily believes she has her own love life under control. By coming to Emily to handle his divorce from his second wife, Jake believes he'll get the best advice possible.
Among those who agree with him are Emily's two sisters, Laura and Hallie. For almost twenty years Laura has devoted herself to being a wife and mother, and she is neither emotionally nor financially prepared to have her psychiatrist husband, Ezra, announce he wants a divorce. Hallie, too, is a wife and mother; but she has also pursued a career, hitching her wagon to whatever trendy star is in the ascendancy, most recently as director of the Alliance of Women Executives (AWE). Her complaint is that her husband, Daniel, prefers staying up with his computer to going to bed with her.
Although these are people who love neither wisely nor well, they will--with the exception of dreadful Ezra--provoke tears of laughter, and maybe a few of sorrow. Not the least of the joys of CONJUGAL RITES is that Ellen Feldman has no ax to grind. If her subject is the sadomasochism involved in the everyday battles of the war between the sexes, her viewpoint is that men and women are meant to be partners. In falling in love, in falling out of love, in sleeping apart and together, they indulge in sexual games. The winners are those who maintain the best perspectives, and the ability to laugh is the prize.