I picked up a copy of Jane Stevenson’s Good Women, a collection of three novellas, during a visit to the Chicago bookstore Women and Children First. It was two days after Christmas, and I wanted an entertaining read to help me forget the stress of the holidays. I was intrigued by the description printed on the back cover of Stevenson as a “diabolically clever prose stylist,” and I also liked the opening lines of the first novella entitled Light My Fire: “The really ironic thing is, I hadn’t been thinking about sex at all. I’d been thinking it would’ve been the perfect day to murder your wife, and I’d probably get in less trouble if I had. You get away with murder, if you keep your head, but stonking great errors of judgment don’t get forgiven, ever.”
The speaker of these lines is David Laurence, an architect in Scotland who leaves his wife for a woman he meets on the train. When Freda Constantine first appears across from him on a train car, she’s enjoying the ride so to speak, engaging in a “slight rhythmic play of her thigh muscles, clenching, holding for a moment, releasing.” She concludes a little later with a sigh. It doesn’t take long for David to decide to marry Freda, and his “stonking” error in judgment soon leads to disaster. The couple moves into a stone house built in the seventeenth century and last decorated in the 1970s. David describes the drawing room as looking “as if someone had spent a long dark winter throwing fried eggs at the wall.” The drama that unfolds after the couple moves in is, like the house, a comical horror. Out for a quick profit, the couple wants to renovate and then sell the house while real-estate prices are still on the rise. Unfortunately for them, they lack the money and time to make real improvements. Stevenson’s humor is sharp as she shows the couple trying to fix up the scene of their deepening misery.
In all three novellas, Stevenson sets up a conflict with a socially satiric edge. In Walking with Angels, she explores the New Age movement through the character of Wenda, a woman whose growing awareness of angels pits her against her skeptical and annoyed husband. In the third novella Garden Guerrillas, Stevenson returns to the subject of the recent real-estate bubble, but this time she makes her protagonist more sympathetic. Alice Wright is a widow who is being pushed out of her London home by her son and daughter-in-law. She has lived in her house on Kew Green for over thirty years, taking care of her husband, her son and her garden. Now, with her son grown and her husband having died, she is being forced out of what has become a two-million-dollar property. As she plans what to do next, she starts purchasing invasive plants to put into the beloved garden that she’s on the verge of losing.
I found Alice’s story the strongest of the three novellas. It is quietly cunning and effective, much like Alice herself.