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An Available Man

Hilma Wolitzer

NY Times Review

In the opening lines of Hilma Wolitzer's wonderful new novel, the recently widowed Edward Schuyler stands in his living room, ironing, when the telephone rings. He picks it up to hear the clamorous, intrusive voice of a female suitor, attempting to break in on his grief. But he'd rather iron the blouses of his deceased wife, Bee, "as a way of reconnecting with her when she was so irrevocably gone" than date any of the women now scurrying in his direction. Bee, on her deathbed, had predicted this fate: "Look at you. They'll be crawling out of the woodwork."

And so they do, but who can blame them? Edward is a catch - or will be, once he's returned from the Underworld. A 62-year-old teacher, he's a "Science Guy. Erudite and kind, balding but handsome," according to the personal ad placed, unbeknown to him, by his stepdaughter and stepdaughter-in-law in The New York Review of Books. Despite his horror at this gesture, he cares for Bee's children, and for the other survivors she has bequeathed him: a failing 15-year-old dog and an ancient mother-in-law who calls herself "the wreck of the Hesperus" but hasn't lost a marble yet - indeed, wishes she could forget, "just a little," to mitigate her own grief.

As dark as this material might sound, it isn't. Wolitzer's vision of the world, for all its sorrow, is often hilarious and always compassionate. Her novels are social comedies: they may feature jiltings, separations and bereavement, but they tend to have happy endings. Rooted in Manhattan and its suburbs, her characters share many cultural references with her readers. We know, as Edward does, that the Saturday crossword puzzle in The New York Times can be "daunting." And we understand Edward and Bee's ironic humor. When, before learning she has cancer, they discuss how many of their friends have recently died, "Bee said, 'Our circle is getting smaller and smaller. Soon we'll only be a semicircle.' 'And then a comma,' Edward added. They smiled at each other, in a guilty rush of gaiety."

One of the few characters to lack a sense of humor is the villain of "An Available Man," a flamboyant figure from Edward's past who erupts into his present. Her reappearance is astonishing, but consistent with her character and with the overall weave of the book, in which Wolitzer braids past and present together - so that Edward's first date as a widower glimmers with memories of his first date ever, half a century before. And Bee, though absent, continues to accompany him, remaining just as present a player as the living. Yet this interweaving is also what finally heals Edward, rendering him whole again, like one of the old tapestries he watches being repaired in the textile conservation lab at the Met.

There, in the basement of the great museum, our 21st-century New Yorker, whose world brims with mythologies (Central Park reveals itself as Oz and one of his pursuers incarnates Germanic legend, her seductive siren song echoing across MoMA's mobbed lobby), will find his Penelope. And when at last he recognizes her, we realize that he is Odysseus, wandering the world on his way home. Unlike his Greek forerunner, however, he's the one who's been besieged by suitors, while with "long patience," his true second love sits calmly waiting, before her loom, as he makes his lucky way toward her.

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