A Charmed Life

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Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992 - Fiction - 313 pages
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Martha Sinnott returns with her second husband to the New England artists' colony she left behind seven years earlier when she divorced her first husband. The townfolk have remained much the same, including Martha's former husband, who has relocated nearby. Martha is in touch with her former friends, who are in touch with her former husband, so Martha should be able to see him as well, shouldn't she?

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The ironically titled A Charmed Life is the second novel of Mary McCarthy. Published in 1955 and set in the same decade, the story depicts a fictional small country town, New Leeds, situated on the Atlantic seacoast, a drive of three hours from Boston. It is a community of incongruities, where a former alcoholic manages the local wine store and where one could find a woman who decorates her home with a six by eleven foot portrait of her husband's ex-wife. In this place, it would not be unusual for a Friday soiree to include an anatomization of morality in the plays of Racine or a discourse on the representation of love in the Symposium, while accompanied by a meal of roast without salt, because the hostess would have forgotten that she hadn't a grain in the kitchen, and several rounds of gin-and-frenches, without the rocks on account of the icebox being out of order for three days and the town's sole electrician being, unashamedly, a `lazy loafer'. The strange mixture of sophistication and backwardness seems to be an ideal setting for Bohemians who have past their prime and no longer have the excuse of youth for their foolhardy aspirations. Rather than nourish creative genius, the absence of urban distractions seems only to inspire ill-conceived schemes, a benign example being Jane Coe's sustainable sheep project which she fancies will get her a new set of woolen blankets and the local high school an addition to the curriculum on animal husbandry.
It is a novel of couples of all types, married, divorced and undecided. Taking a tally of the number of New Leedsian remarriages and affairs immediately reveals that couplings are both craved for and fraught. For each pair among Dolly Lamb and Sandy Gray, the Coes, the Murphys and the Sinnotts, estrangement, at best, and disunion, at worst, seem inevitable. Curiously, the contributing faults are notably gendered. The men are either rampant Narcissists or dogged cheerleaders, while each woman shows, in usually more than one instance, a humiliating lack of self-restraint and a willingness to deceive. The centerpieces of the narrative are both trivial and tragic examples of breakdowns of trust. Using the same technique as The Group, chapters give a free indirect perspective of one character. These detailed disclosures of inner rationalizations that attend an act of deception are the source of the novel's bitter humor.
Duplicity is not limited to the inhabitants of this coastal town. Even the name of the setting itself is misleading. Rather than a place of fresh beginnings, New Leeds is a relic of failed starts. This is made evident in the opening of the novel when the arrival of John and Marhta Sinnott is revealed to, in fact, be a return after a midnight marital dispute between Martha and her former husband Miles, a house set a-flame, divorce, mutual remarriages and a seven-year absence to literally allow the smoke to disperse. To return to a place where one's past overshadows the present like a looming ash heap seems compulsive folly. One could read the novel as a rejoinder to Santayana: is it ignorance that condemns us to repeat the past or the willful pursuit of redemption? McCarthy's view about the consequences of this compulsion is arguably represented in the first incident of the novel when John Sinnott's attempt to repair a window of the Sinnott's reclaimed residence - a figurative wiping the slate clean - ends in shards and a bloody hand. A sanguinary instance of a narrative that is a series of darkly humorous and at times grotesque cautions against efforts to rectify the past.


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About the author (1992)

MARY MCCARTHY (1912-1989) was a short-story writer, bestselling novelist, essayist, and critic. She was the author of The Stones of Florence and Birds of America, among other books.

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