State of the Union, by Douglas Kennedy

Never sleep with a revolutionary

Although I regret Kennedy's abandonment of brilliant Mamet-like thrillers such as his previous novels The Big Picture and The Job, I am of the French camp. As titles like A Special Relationship and The Pursuit of Happiness suggest, what he is writing is an extremely clever and consistently engaging blend of the personal and the political. His examinations of life from the female perspective blend into national concerns, so that what seems to be focused on the domestic in fact goes much deeper and wider than that. State of the Union is the boldest of these in that it delves into the consciousness and past of a woman who, over one brief period of her life, harboured a terrorist.

Hannah Buchan, now 50, is the daughter of a famous radical father. Her way of rebelling against him was, predictably, to marry her college sweetheart, and raise a family in a small town, where her only soulmate is the local librarian. For 30 years, she leads an unblemished life apart from a one-night-stand with a revolutionary, Toby. A Weatherman, he forces her to drive him to Canada by threatening the life of her baby. Years later, when Hannah's children are grown up, Toby writes a preening description of his escapade which makes it so easy to identify Hannah as an adulteress that soon her neighbours are refusing to talk to her or let her teach their kids.

The stress ratchets up. Hannah's beloved daughter, Lizzie, goes missing, to public scandal, evisceration by the media and, inevitably, the discovery that Hannah's long marriage to a successful doctor has become a sham. Like a lot of middle-aged, middle-class women, Hannah is kindly, thoughtful but just a trifle irritating in her consciousness of virtue. What happens to her begins as Schadenfreude then becomes a series of stations of the Cross, with even her best friend Margy dying of cancer. Kennedy's enjoyment at piling on the grief is a bit too flamboyant at times, and the daughter's manic depression is definitely an optional extra. Of course, some of it comes right, leaving Hannah at long last to escape to Paris.

As in Lisa Alther's 1976 best-seller, Kinflicks, the political allegory is drawn as finely as the tale of one woman's struggle to emancipate herself. The small-town conservative values espoused by Hannah mask censoriousness, vindictiveness and the absence of all those Capraesque virtues she, like so many Republicans, believe lie at the heart of policy. It's a lesson worth repeating over here, not least because the French were right all along.

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