The narrator of UW-Madison alum Lauren's Fox's Still Life with Husband is working on a book of love poems to fish. Sole Mates is the book-within-the-book that contains poems with titles like 'When You're Feeling Crappie' and 'My God, What a Cod,' with lines like 'Fish, my love for you sticks/but are we meant to be?/How I wonder, ponder, flounder/But I fear our love is doomed,/for I am scared of water,/chicken of the sea.'
'I'm trying to carve out a niche for myself as a writer of love poems to nonhumans,' the fictional Emily Ross explains. Similarly, Fox's novel, her first, gets a lot of laughs while it zeroes in on a niche that seems rather narrow at first glance.
Still Life with Husband deals with infidelity from the perspective of a 30-year-old woman who has been married for almost 10 years. She married by choice, when other educated, independent women who didn't 'need' to get married were waiting. In other words, Emily Ross is experiencing the seven-year-itch about a decade younger than fictional characters usually do.
The concept works. The narrator's age allows Fox to isolate the emotional lives of her characters and navigate those waters without muddying them with too many practical matters. In most 10-year marriages there is a great deal more in the way: children, mortgages, IRAs, biological clocks.
However, the issues and themes Fox deftly explores are universal. How much honesty do we owe the people to whom we are closest? How far will we go to test our darkest hypotheses about ourselves? If a former classmate discovers our book of love poems to fish, will we deny that we wrote them? The story moves easily between comedy, drama and tragedy, as Emily sorts through her lust, guilt, indecision, immaturity and regret on virtually every page.
Publishers Weekly has called the novel 'chick lit,' but it is not an apt term. There is not a single Manolo Blahnik in Still Life with Husband, and, without giving too much away, let's just say the book does not end happily enough for most beach readers.
Bonus points: Most of the story is set in Milwaukee, where Fox lives, and the two main characters meet at UW-Madison during a 'kiss in' loosely based on events that actually happened here in 1990. And Emily Ross has her affair with an editor from the local alternative newsweekly.