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Reviews Wed Mar 19 2008

Review: The Kept Man by Jami Attenberg

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The Kept Man

by Jami Attenberg

(Riverhead Books, 2008)

It is perhaps one of literature’s most romantic notions, the idea that a woman would patiently wait forever for the man she loves. Through centuries of writings and even through the past several decades of this motif infiltrating our culture and minds, we might expect it to be a bit overdone and stale in the twenty-first century. And yet, this is surprisingly not the case with Jami Attenberg’s The Kept Man. Perhaps it is because a good love story will never grow old or because somehow we still believe in the most futile of romantic notions, but whatever the reason, this age-old story is born fresh and anew in this compelling read.

The Kept Man is the story of Jarvis Miller, thirty-something New Yorker, reformed punk rebel party girl and half-widow of acclaimed artist Martin Miller. Owing to a brain aneurysm and a fall from a ladder, Martin has been in a coma for the past six years and Jarvis has become something of a recluse, restricting her environment to her apartment and his medical care room, and her interactions to his nurses and Missy, the cab driver who takes her there every week. Since the accident, the value of Martin’s art has increased steadily and Jarvis sustains herself financially by selling off his work as it becomes necessary. Finding little solace in her remaining friends – Alice, a gallery owner, and Davis, one of Martin’s best friends – it is only through the accidental laundromat meeting of three married men that Jarvis begins to contemplate life beyond Martin.

This story could be simple. We might expect there to be romantic interest between Jarvis and the three men, members of what they call the Kept Man Club owing to the fact they are all financially supported by their wives. We might expect Jarvis’s bouts of longing and confusion as she starts to separate herself from a present that is becoming her past. We might even expect that Jarvis will come to learn that her marriage and her friends were never as true to her as she believed them to be. What keeps this story from falling prey to predictability is Attenberg’s lovely ability to create something new out of our expectations. “It’s an indulgence, I know, depression,” Jarvis thinks of her inevitable depression after her weekly visit with Martin. “A safe harbor for those of us who can’t put up a fight, cannot raise our hands in firm fists and say, I am going to try and handle all of this bullshit.” This writing of Jarvis as so self-deprecating and so harsh on herself lends a feeling of strength and authenticity to this woman who may be waiting for her man, but knows she is destroying herself in doing so.

Though the conclusion of the novel may feel a bit too convenient to be true, it is this depth of character that keeps The Kept Man from being just another wanton love story. Jarvis, Martin and the people in their lives are wonderfully flawed and regardless of whether we believe in the virtue of their decisions, we can believe in the reality of these decisions being made. In Attenberg’s hands, Jarvis’s love for Martin is honest – it is intense, sometimes destructive, and completely out of her control. “It is out of love, not anger. Love for myself, love for him. And out of necessity. If I am ever going to be a whole person again, I am going to have to stop being the half-widow,” Jarvis thinks when contemplating the prospect of regaining her life. This brutal look at one woman’s resistance to change, fear of loneliness and ultimate belief in the necessity of moving forward takes The Kept Man from the realm of the sentimental love story to something refreshing, truthful and wholly worthy of the read.

 
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