Garrett in Wedlock
The stories in Paul Mandelbaum’s debut novel were published previously as separate short stories in different publications. They hang together agreeably enough, though the effect is somewhat more of a compendium of vignettes than a novel proper. This is no problem in and of itself, but it does cast a certain vagueness over the book’s central character, the already somewhat vague Garrett of the title.
The first of the stories concerns Garrett’s wedding to May-Annlouise, who has two children by two previous husbands. The children are both products of interesting, exotic men who will figure later in the book: Lynn, the daughter of a wealthy Indian man who was compelled to return to India after a disastrous attempt to live with both his American wife with his Indian one; and Turpin, son of a Norwegian explorer who, in the second story, is revealed to be dying of a variant of mad cow disease he picked up while eating tainted brain with a cannibal tribe. The exoticism of these men makes Garrett look bland in comparison, and, indeed, his diffidence in his interactions with others extends into his relationship with the reader.
Garrett could be seen as an American everyman—the product of cold and unapproachable parents, emotionally reserved, middle class—but he’s painted, for the most part, as a sort of benign cipher. The ex-husbands are in fact the most interesting characters in the book—the explorer husband is given an untamable Scandinavian arrogance (in addition to, you know, the brain eating), and the Indian husband has a nice turn as an estranged father aggrieved by his daughter’s lack of a Muslim education.
But Garrett in Wedlock seems to find Garrett himself a little dull, as well; the point of view shifts from story to story, taking residence in each of the major players and a few minor ones. They all have their quirks. Lynn adopts her father’s religion with a vengeance and opts for an arranged marriage at 17. Turpin—the name, interestingly, refers to both a kind of tortoise and an English highwayman—is prone to grand and catastrophic gestures. There is an acrimonious pair of Israeli yoga-teaching brothers, and a seductive young secretary with a serious gambling habit. And though Mandelbaum’s novel is ostensibly about the arc of a marriage, all these characters seem curiously discrete, which gives the impression that it’s more about the essential loneliness of being alive, and the way a few extraordinary events and people can shape an otherwise mundane existence. Garrett himself is allowed one extraordinary act toward the end of the book, and the effect is one of a mild-mannered sleepwalker gently shaking himself awake. Like its protagonist, the book is gentle and caring, but too mild to carry the flights of fancy it allows itself.