Ménage by Alix Kates Shulman

Ménage by Alix Kates Shulman is the story of a love triangle – with four participants.

Heather is married to Mack.

“After their big Kansas wedding, the McKays had returned to Manhattan… Full of plans, they had set out to create for themselves a certain kind of ideal urban marriage modeled on images of New York life they’d read about or viewed, they couldn’t have said exactly where. Each week they scanned the reviews in the Times and the cultural listings in the New Yorker and New York Magazine before buying tickets to enticing events…They had taken busses and taxis, learning the differences between Szechuan, Shanghai, and Hong Kong cuisine…. until Mack began his rise and Heather became pregnant with Chloe. Then they had moved.”

Mack is friends with Maja. But is it more? Heather’s not sure.

Zolton and Maja are lovers.

Maja kills herself.

Zolton and Mack meet at Maja’s funeral.

Mack becomes Zolton’s ‘benefactor’.

“She couldn’t tell anymore whose side Mack was on. He claimed to be her ally and champion, but when it came to Zoltan, there was some inscrutable connection between them that made all sometimes feel more like adversary. Had it been forged over Maja’s body or was it a fallback to primitive male bonding? Whatever it was, she sometimes felt trapped in a buddy movie.”

Heather cracks on to Zolton. But does he take her up on her advances?

“A ticklish situation. She was a devilishly attractive woman…. All the while she lay there speaking innocuous pleasantries, she was rhythmically tapping one arched lean foot against the other in a way he thought calculated to arouse him. Or was that simply the way of these Americans, these Daisy Maes and Daisy Millers? They routinely objected to being valued for their sex yet shamelessly put themselves forward.”

The stage for this drama is a luxurious house, designed and built by Heather and Mack in the countryside outside of New York (too many mentions of animals, apple orchards and winding driveways to be considered the suburbs).

What’s to like about this story:

  • dark, moody, exiled writer Zoltan plonked in the middle of Heather’s Martha-Stewart-world makes you think something very, very bad is about to happen.
  • Mack – trustworthy or not? The character keeps you guessing until the end.
  • There is some lovely writing – “Heather, whose solitary morning hours had so recently been tranquil working interludes in her child-ruffled days….”

What I wasn’t a huge fan of:

  • I wasn’t entirely convinced of the motivation of Mack and Heather. Zolton, yes, but it’s easy to create a self-absorbed artiste as a character.
  • Shulman hinted around the edges of Heather and Mack’s social climbing – I wish she’d dissected it a little further, exposed them a little more.

2/5 I think I spent more time imagining the McKay’s amazing home than focused on the characters and what they were doing, which is probably not right given that the novel supposedly examines the “modern malaise (why is having it all never enough?)”.

The food in Ménage is all apples, apples, apples. As a general rule, I don’t do hot fruit (yes, you can have that whole apple pie for yourself) but I could stretch to Spiced Slow-roast Duck with Apple Sauce.


6 responses

  1. I try to convince my fellow Americans that hot fruit is simply…yucky. I’m glad I know someone who agrees. I always skip the pie during holidays. I’d rather have cake anyway.

    On a side note, I miss the apple orchards in the northeast.

    And on a more philosophical note, why is having it all never enough? This is something I think about frequently, because there is always something I feel like I want or could’ve done better. I’m very lucky now, considering the way my life started. Sometimes I wonder why it doesn’t feel like enough. Feeling content (and living a simpler life) is something I actively work towards. This comment is probably a bit too heavy, but what else are books for!?!

    • The worst? Apricot chicken (gag) and sultanas in curries *passes out*

      A few months ago I went to the funeral of a very close friend’s grandmother. She died at 104 and had had a full and wonderful life. After the funeral, my friend’s older sister (who I hadn’t seen for ten years at least) said to me “I always remember something you said when you were about 14 and it’s relevant because Sylv (the grandmother) lived it….” As she paused I scrambled to think what wisdom I could have imparted as a teenager that had any place being mentioned at the funeral. And she continued “…you said ‘80% happy is perfect’. Slyv took the bad with the good without complaint and just relished the 80%”

      Shit, I was right when I was 14. 80% happy is a pretty good goal to have in life.

      I’ve reached a point where I am happy with my lot and I’m not craving the elusive ‘more’. How? I don’t know. It has come about only in the last few years though, mostly because many of my friends have lost jobs/ marriages have broken down/ had major health concerns – I look at it all and think “I’m bloody lucky and I love my life.” (does that sound a bit up myself?!)

      • Yep, but a good heavy. I like the idea of 80% because I truly to believe perfection is impossible, as is being happy at every moment of every day.

        And no it doesn’t sound a bit up myself. I’m just reaching the age cycle where people are starting to get divorced. It’s unnerving almost, because my partner and I are still very happy. And one of my friends from college had to have a pace maker put in a few months ago. I was shocked.

        Someday we’ll all realize that we were most philosophical and wise at age 14. And then we’ll all die.

      • Good, glad I don’t sound up myself because honestly, I feel ridiculous admitting that I actually like my life.

        When the first of our friends divorced it was truly shocking. And then it was like a domino effect. And now we’ve added health issues into the mix, the strain of second marriages and blended families, and the issue of aging parents. I count my blessings and enjoy the 80% part of life.

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