- Matthew Norman
- Harper Perennial
- 329 pp.
- Reviewed by Christine Koubek
- September 2, 2011
In this hilarious debut novel, a middle-aged man confronts the measure of his life in the face of his father’s success.
Reviewed by Christine Koubek
Matthew Norman’s witty debut novel, Domestic Violets, is a story about a failing marriage, the angst of aging, career aspirations gone awry and second chances — in other words, a story more frequently told from a woman’s perspective.
In Domestic Violets, however, we get a hilarious man’s-eye-view of midlife from protagonist Tom Violet. The story begins with Tom in the bathroom fretting about what will soon become another failed attempt for him and his wife in the bedroom. “The guy I see in the mirror, Tom Violet, the same lanky, moody bastard I’ve been looking at for almost thirty-six years now, looks ... old. The fact that I’m naked certainly isn’t helping. Like most men who are not Brad Pitt, I could do without the sight of my own nudity. Back in the day I was a long-distance runner, all streamlined and put together. Now I’m flabby-thin, the way a fat guy might look after a year in an internment camp. Worse, the hair on my chest is overgrown and dark against my pale skin and I wonder if I should be one of those guys who shaves his chest. Maybe that would help. Of course it wouldn’t help. That’s not the problem. The problem is my broken wang.”
Tom’s panic increases when his wife’s “long and toned and treadmill-ready” legs and the “red thing from Victoria’s Secret” that she’s wearing do nothing for him. “Lingerie screams of effort,” Tom laments to himself. “It screams of forced intimacy and the fact that we both know she’s probably ovulating. We did the math this week. What I need to do is to sneak up on sex.”
Norman’s astute understanding of marriage translates to more than just humorous marital sex conundrums, though. There are spousal exchanges throughout the book that will ring true to those long married, like this one when Tom’s wife, Anna, notices Tom’s father’s overnight bag: “Anna notices the overnight bag on the kitchen table and gives me a look. I shrug just enough to tell her that I have no idea and then she rolls her eyes at my perpetual lack of knowledge. It’s the silent language of marriage.”
And yet, while growing marital troubles set the stage for the story, Tom’s semi-estranged relationship with his father is the novel’s heart. Tom’s father, Curtis, is a National Book Award and Pen/Faulkner winner and an author whose books have made best-seller lists around the globe. So when Curtis shows up drunk on Tom’s doorstep one night (after ditching wife number three) and announces that he’s finally won the Pulitzer, Tom feels it’s even less likely that he’ll ever escape the corporate world and become a novelist. Tom’s hopes grow more angst ridden with every celebration of his father’s success. After all, it’s hard to compete with a man like Curtis Violet, a man whose Advanced Fiction students make bright yellow T-shirts that read “W.W.C.V.D.” (What Would Curtis Violet Do).
So what does Tom do? He stays mum about his “Operation Secret Novel” that he spent years writing and instead embarks on a haphazard plan to improve his love and work life.
He’s been an advertising copywriter for years and is irreverent about the business of business. He refers to his company as “the Death Star” and “Cubeland,” leaves work for hours at a time, sometimes to golf, sometimes to flirt on the way to 7-Eleven with his attractive young junior copywriter. He makes a mission out of annoying one despised colleague (whom he refers to as “Osama Bin Gregory”) with over-the-top kindness. And in what becomes a career- changing move, pens a lacerating account of corporate life that he sends off as a press release to the Washington Post Business section. It goes viral.
In the meantime, Tom chooses the path of least resistance for his marriage, and just when he thinks his wife might truly be having an affair — and he is in the junior copywriter’s bedroom on the brink of having his own affair — Domestic Violets takes an interesting turn and Tom finds redemption and answers from some of the story’s least likely characters.
In the end, Norman’s hilarious debut novel is a tale of a man’s middle-age quest to differentiate himself from his father and decide what’s worth changing and what’s worth keeping in his life.
Christine Koubek is a freelance writer, author and graduate student in Fairfield University’s MFA program. Her essays and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Coastal Living, Bethesda, Ladies’ Home Journal and many other publications.