BOOK REVIEW / Getting their hooks into a rare species: 'My Life as a Whale' - Dyan Sheldon: Hutchinson, 13.99

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The Independent Culture
ThE summer of '86. Was that the one when everybody who asked you to dinner served walnut pesto and arugula salad, or sun-dried tomatoes and olive bread? Michael C Householder, gourmet cook and hero of this brilliantly observed New York tragi- comedy, can't recall, but it was the summer that changed his life. A killer nicknamed the Butcher of Broadway was leaving bits of women in fast-food containers and garbage cans. And Newsweek ran a cover story titled 'The Marriage Crunch', which claimed that a 30-year-old, college-educated woman's chance of finding a husband was less than 10 per cent, and that by the age of 40 she would be more likely to be shot by a terrorist than to marry.

Suddenly Michael, a successful literary agent, 34 and single, finds himself as endangered and hunted as the finback whale. Every woman in the city is out to get him, it seems: 'Then it began to happen while I was waiting for my number to come up in the deli. I'd be standing there, watching the scales, when I'd suddenly smell Opium among the oil and cheese. 'What do you think of their Greek olives?' a husky voice would whisper. Or, 'I don't suppose you have any idea of what Manchego is?' ' Inevitably his mom is driving him nuts, too, and Michael is inspired to invent, and then impersonate, a wife to get all these women off his back. His escapades land him in jail, charged with being the Butcher of Broadway.

So far, so funny. But might it not be letting the side down to like Michael, this self-styled liberal, a schmuck who will happily spend a wet weekend reorganising his spice rack and inventing three new stuffings for mushrooms? Is he, agent for a book called How To Get Mr Right, not a closet chauvinist? When real-life horrors assault us daily, can our amusement be sustained by a plot which features a serial killer who serves up pieces of women as nouvelle cuisine?

Feminists, and indeed anybody sickened by fictional and cinematic depictions of women as victims, need not fear. Closer in generous spirit to the great Peter De Vries and light years away from the meretricious The Silence of the Lambs, Dyan Sheldon turns the tables on Michael with subtle skill, leaving him scathed but still likeable. She can write tenderly about love, and with bleak but celebratory insight into the bravery of lonely women who, every morning, put on lipstick and square their shoulders to face the day; and there is a charming polysyllabic parrot with a great beak for dialogue.