This is one of three pieces of fiction I’ve read the past few weeks that feature an inter-generational Monopoly game, albeit more prominently in this one than the others (“Christmas Eve” and Snow Angels). The details of the game aren’t as important as the fact that Monopoly is almost universally known, at least by the intended audience of the stories.
“First Husband” was published in the January 6, 2014, issue of The New Yorker. It holds together decently; in other words, I’m not surprised to see it here. On the other hand, there is nothing about it that grabbed me. It’s a bit vague, unfocused.
If there were a focus, I would say that it’s the protagonist Lovey’s ambivalence toward her first husband. Actually, the ambivalence is what’s surprising because, based on Lovey’s characterization of their past, she should be glad to be through with him. She is glad to be through with him. And yet, there is this lingering longing, this slightly shameful desire, mingled with a hunger to show herself to the lover who spurned her. That’s the subtext, but it’s a very buried subtext. I think of Ann Beattie’s story, “That Last Odd Day in L.A.” There was a subtext there, too: the relationship with the daughter. But that felt more coalesced. I could see the tiny filaments connecting each moment in the story to that subtext, even if the connections were difficult to detect, nearly transparent. Part of it was that the ending of Beattie’s piece seemed to shine a light back onto the whole story, whereas the ending here, Caleb (ex-step-grandson) crying out to Lovey, “Don’t you dare let me win!”–what did that have to do with the subtext? It didn’t fit together, and a short story is short enough that most things should fit, or at least something else should be going on that makes the excuse for it.
Even Lovey I can’t quite put a finger on. She doesn’t seem a well-formed character to me, except that she’s clearly a softy who lets her step-children walk all over her, the needier and more misbehaved, the better. But that quality does not a complete person make. Her role toward the “children” in her life may be fairly well-defined, but that doesn’t illuminate her feelings toward her husbands (first or second). And yet, aren’t those feelings supposed to be the crux of the story? Why else title it “First Husband”?
I can say all this because I don’t have to say much else: about the writing style, the dialogue, the employment of flashbacks. It’s all fine, perfectly adequate (also perfectly run-of-the-mill). Just goes to show that there are so many levels in fiction where one can falter, stumble.