Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Stockholm Syndrome—the Home Game!

Elizabeth LaBan, The Restaurant Critic's Wife: a Novel

Lila Lippincott Soto is restless. She left a high-powered but rootless executive job to marry a journalist, who conveniently made a nest for her. But Lila’s husband, Sam Soto, has become an influential restaurant critic, a job that’s distorted his goals: his desire for anonymity, while pursuing a highly public career, has created pressures on Lila. Stranded at home with two children under five, she starts questioning her life choices.

Reading Elizabeth LaBan’s most recent novel, I initially thought I’d uncovered the author’s fictionalized couples therapy session. LaBan, like Lila, lives in Philadelphia. Both have two children. Both are married to restaurant critics. The early chapters broadcast the novel’s possibly autobiographical nature, leaving me feeling voyeuristic and creepy. I don’t read novels to roll, puppy-like, in the author’s dirty laundry.

As the story unfolds, however, circumstances turned dark. Lila, our first-person, present-tense narrator, keeps playing Sam’s increasingly desperate need for anonymity as frustrating but charming. He invents costumes to pass as pop stars, businessmen, and other non-journalistic people whom three-diamond restaurants would never pander to. (Seriously? Elton John is your safe disguise?) And he demands his wife participate, even as her pregnancy goes beyond her due date.

What a card, huh? Except, amid all that, Lila starts becoming afraid to answer the phone or door, lest she somehow compromise Sam’s anonymity and earn his ire. She notes Sam wants to exercise authority to veto Lila’s friendships, since one neighborhood friend’s husband owns a restaurant Sam will likely eventually review. Sam keeps Lila isolated on their pedestrian-unfriendly suburban street, not working, raising a preschooler and a newborn full-time.

Elizabeth LaBan
These are classic textbook warning signs of domestic abuse. Sam’s behavior, which becomes increasingly demanding and disruptive, could’ve come directly from the pamphlets distributed free in battered women’s shelters. Though Sam never raises a hand against her (in the portion I read before disgust stopped me), his psychological manipulation tactics, designed to shame and silence his wife, filled me with visceral horror.

Yet LaBan never stops playing Lila’s story like domestic comedy. Lila describes Sam’s latest unreasonable demands with rueful humor; you can practically hear her scoffing, “Garsh, what a dork.” She seemingly thinks resuming her old executive career will give her life meaning, as though nesting, a common behavior of people with kids, were somehow the cause of her malaise. Like, to shake her pervasive despair, she need only rediscover herself.

And I’m reading, thinking: “Holy shit, she thinks this moonshine is cute!” By “she,” I might mean Lila or LaBan. Since one is apparently the other’s proxy, the difference is slight. But throughout, Lila reveals circumstances profoundly horrifying to people familiar with abuse patterns. Sam proposed because Lila got pregnant. He expects his career to dictate her behavior. He makes grandiose proclamations about money. And it’s always, somehow, endearing.

LaBan’s storytelling suggests she thinks she’s writing about a woman who needs to reclaim her personal identity, and just needs to figure out how. Well, arguably so. By persuading her to abandon her career, friends, goals, and autonomy, Lila’s husband has debatably seized her identity, which she needs to grab back. She should start, at least, by telling her husband to back down. Possibly from the safety of a shelter.

I have personal reasons this worries me. Three women I know got trapped in abusive relationships. One wasn’t physical, though that marriage still demonstrates external signs that make me cringe. Another ended in acrimonious divorce. The third escalated in ways outsiders didn’t see, because she didn’t tell anyone what happened. We only realized the relationship had entered a doom spiral when it ended, abruptly, in gun homicide. Totally not kidding.

This book weighs in around 300 pages; I quit reading around the one-third mark, because Lila kept making joking excuses for Sam’s behavior. She never demonstrated enough self-awareness to challenge Sam’s pernicious abuse. I was promised a domestic comedy, but received a joking exposé on a psychological manipulator and his enabler. And I can’t tell whether the author even realizes what she’s created—possibly what she’s lived through.

Maybe circumstances changed after page 100. But that’s too late for me; I already felt like I’d stepped in manure, and it was creeping up my leg, and couldn’t wash it off. Maybe the abuse turned physical, and thus inarguable. Maybe Lila has her fill, asserts herself, and reëstablishes balance in her marriage. But after LaBan played abuse as cute for 100 pages, I couldn’t stomach any more. The horror was just too much.

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