Worst Fears

Katherine Whittamore reviews Fay Weldon's novel "Worst Fears".

Published June 12, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Worst fear, alright -- being stuck with Fay Weldon's new book this summer. By all means, use "Worst Fears" to shade your eyes, or anchor your towel, but don't read the thing. Kelp is more alive and affirming. The jacket copy claims Weldon's 21st novel is "an irresistible blend of compassionate wisdom and deliciously nasty wit," but actually it's sheer sourness spiked with fall-flat, jokesy prose. Proof: "The quick and the dead. She was quick and Ned was dead." More proof: "She felt empowered, as would a witch who had just stolen the clippings from her enemy's toenails."

What is it with Weldon? Tart-talking modernity can't fill 21 novels, and why bother to use a (dead-white-male) thesaurus to enliven one's prose when, after all, you can spoon such profundities as: "She lived in a beautiful house, in a beautiful place. She was a widow." Besides that original adjective, there's always the f-and c-words to throw around. Weldon is salty, but it's the only spice in her rack, and that makes for a shriveled reading experience.

"Worst Fears" relates the story of Alexandra, an actress sometimes considered "a successor to Vanessa Redgrave," who is forced to confront her own worst fear -- that she's being cheated on by her husband, Ned. Weldon could have served this story up in the manner of a British Nora Ephron, or perhaps a femme David Lodge, but instead we're offered vapid characters, a little authorial moralizing and a soup of cliches. For instance, every character has affairs (Weldon leads us down the herpes trail several times). Promiscuity may be culturally indicative, as in a Schnitzler play, or juicy, as in "Melrose Place," but in "Worst Fears" it's just wearying: "Where she had seen him-and-her," writes Weldon, "Ned had seen him-and-her-her-her." Get us out of here-here-here.

It's hard to care much about cardboard Alexandra since she dumps her four-year-old son with her mother throughout, and seems to judge most people by their weight. In case you can still muster some sympathy for her -- after all, Ned dies during a tryst (real surprise) -- Weldon will have none of it. As one character mouths: "Actresses are not like real women at all. Make-believe females, with no centre, no soul, no capacity for real emotion." Unfortunately, you can say something similar about this novel.

By Katherine Whittamore

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