Harper Perennial, 2011
Way back last summer, when Jonathan Franzen had just published Freedom, there was a lot of talk about the ghettoization of certain types of fiction—you remember the discussion. Most notably, it was pointed out in several corners that a certain kind of domestic drama or comedy was thought of as a woman’s purview, whereas when men wrote about family dynamics it was Serious Socio-Dynastic Business. Or as Anna North put it at Jezebel, “a woman’s ‘domestic fiction’ is a man’s ‘sweeping family saga.’”
I’m not sure I bought that then—it seemed like so much posturing on either side—and after reading Matthew Norman’s Domestic Violets I’m definitely unconvinced. Here is a book that wears its heart on its title page: a domestic novel written by a man, about a man, from a decidedly masculine point of view, yet it’s not soaked with testosterone or obsessed with panoptic pronouncements on the state of the world. It’s the story of one fairly average guy at something of an impasse in his life, trying to do the right thing and tempted to do the wrong thing and somehow muddling through. The book manages to be sweet without being submissive, neither bad-boy lad lit nor sentimental schmaltz. And it’s also very funny.
The Violets in question are Tom—family guy, working stiff, man on the verge of a midlife crisis—his wife, the lovely and forbearing Anna, his daughter Allie, and the man whose shadow he’s still, at 35, plodding along in: Curtis, celebrated novelist and man of letters in the Philip Roth/Norman Mailer/Saul Bellow mode with a few wives, a pile of book awards, and a bit of a drinking problem. Tom is, when we first meet him, something of a shrinking violet himself; to put it bluntly, he can’t get it up. While Anna waits in bed in something from Victoria’s Secret, he’s trying to coax an erection in the bathroom, “like a caged monkey masturbating in front of a horrified troop of Cub Scouts at the zoo.”
Not exactly “I stand here ironing,” but it’s a familiar enough scenario. Tom has been feeling distant from his wife and is stuck in his mindless copywriting job, with a terrible crush on a cute 23-year-old coworker and a newly-finished novel in his desk drawer that he doesn’t know what to do with. What better time, then, for Curtis to show up drunk, having just found out that he won the Pulitzer Prize for his latest short story collection?
Granted, it’s not the most nuanced setup. But it’s also basic enough to be entirely relatable, and that’s where the book sparkles—Domestic Violets is almost compulsively user-friendly. Tom is solidly of the generation that somehow managed not to continue its parents’ upwardly mobile arc, and he both appreciates and resents that fact. Where Curtis has gotten to live the big, flamboyant life complete with literary feuds and sexy volatile trophy wives, Tom has opted for the stasis of stability. He’s living in a house paid for by his father in a nice neighborhood, and his version of acting out is making eyes at his assistant, Katie, over a long lunch break at the local 7-11, and dissing his supervisor. He’s more stirred by the sight of his father’s silver Porsche 911 standing in his driveway by moonlight than he is by his wife lying in bed beside him.
“Maybe you should get one of your own,” Anna says.
I strip back down to my boxers, and I feel all dreadful and ashamed again. “Maybe someday.” For a while we lie together in silence. “The Pulitzer Prize,” I say, because that’s the first non-penis-related thing that comes to mind.
It’s true that Tom is a bit of a jerk, but he’s not a bad person either, and Norman does a fine job of painting him as a believable everyguy. Anyone who’s worked a velvet coffin job in cubeland—“another dreadful little cluster of workstations like some township in South Africa”—while trying to maintain hope for some kind of artistic integrity can sympathize. The fact that the plot swings easily from homey family humor to an arch, but still uncynical, takedown of the literary life is all icing on the cake. There’s a wonderful scene at Curtis’ Pulitzer award luncheon that ends in a fistfight, and some fantastically pissy workplace dialogue.
“The tone is all wrong here. It’s way too casual for the audience. This is supposed to be targeted at C-levels. CEOs. COOs. CIOs. You’re talking to them like they’re a bunch of interns. These are decision makers here, Tom… a sophisticated group.”
“Well, certainly. All the executives I know are wildly sophisticated. But we’re not cutting contractions, Greg. We’ve been over that. This isn’t Comp 101. Have you ever actually tried to read something without contractions? It sounds like it’s written by robots.”
“They don’t have time for casual. All they care about is WIIFM.”
I actually close my eyes here for a moment—that’s how badly this hurts me. “WIIFM” is one of those bullshit, made-up corporate acronyms, and it stands for “What’s In It For Me?” Greg uses it no fewer than ten times a day. Every time it leaves his mouth, I’m convinced that something good and pure in the world—an endangered species or perhaps a rare, exotic flower—is destroyed and Earth becomes that much more hopeless.
Some of the peripheral characters feel a bit like they exist just to pad out the story—Tom’s mother, who’s bolted from his hapless stepfather for reasons of vague dissatisfaction, doesn’t do much for the plot—but the cast is generally endearing. And yes, the novel winds up in all the warm and life-affirming ways you want it to: Tom stands up for himself in the face of corporate anticulture and he takes his novel out of the drawer and the appropriate people end up in bed together. Even the wayward Curits gets to put in a good authorial word for doing the right thing:
“Don’t be a fucking idiot,” he says. “Anna is the sort of woman who writers write about, Tom. Somewhere in the third act, women like her save characters like you and me from ourselves. She’s the loveliest literary device in the world.”
Matthew Norman isn’t breaking any dangerous ground here, but that’s not what he set out to do in the first place. For all its sly humor and literary trappings, the book is congenial and warm. It commiserates with our need for art and security at the same time, and it lets us have them both. There are novels of family life that want to challenge the status quo and question whether any of us are truly fulfilled, and then there are those that serve up the possibility of happiness gladly. Domestic Violets is that kind of book, singing the praises of the everyday with a good dose of humor and a gentle elbow in the ribs. Even the literary nemesis turns out not to be such a bad fellow—I’m not sure you can get more good-natured than that.
This is part of a blog tour sponsored by HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours. Some more stops for this book can be found here: