THE ESSENCE OF THE THING
By Madeleine St. John
Carroll & Graf
234 pp., $22
In the early 1990s, America fell in love with the theory of "genderlects" - the separate dialects of men and women.
First, Deborah Tannen published "You Just Don't Understand." Her plain-style descriptions of how men and women talk differently jumped onto the bestseller list, stayed there for months, and sold millions in paperback.
But - to engage in some competitive male-talk - her success pales next to John Gray's "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus." The marriage counselor's "practical guide for improving communication and getting what you want in your relationships" has roosted permanently on the bestseller list since it was published in 1992, spawning an industry of knockoffs and sequels.
All this, of course, distresses English teachers and lovers of literature who thought novels had been exploring the way men and women communicate for hundreds of years.
"The Essence of the Thing," a new novel by British writer Madeleine St. John, may satisfy the literati and the self-helpi.
St. John's story opens at the moment Jonathan tells Nicola that he wants her to move out. "There's no nice way to say this," he says coolly. "But I've decided - that is, I've come to the conclusion - that we should part."
"I don't understand," Nicola says and repeats, all in perfect harmony with Deborah Tannen's linguistic theory.
The rest of this witty novel is a series of conversations between these two ill-matched lovers, their friends, and parents. The brief, wry chapters read like those freeze-frame photos of a hummingbird in flight or a drop of milk hitting the table. Jonathan and Nicola's breakup itself is common, practically cliche, but the remarkable clarity of St. John's snapshots make her novel a fascinating study.
Peremptorily asked to leave her own flat but still in love with her evictor, Nicola seeks refuge in the habits of domestic routine, ironing his shirts and shampooing the rug. Fortunately, her friends rally around, give her a place to live, and debate whether Jonathan is a rat or a prat. These people know the desire to be left alone shouldn't always be respected.
In the perfectly captured dialogue between these friends, St. John explores a sad gulf between those secure in relationships and those who consider themselves adrift. Despite her own sophistication and her friends' protests, Nicola thinks of herself as a failure because she's lost her man. More than she loves Jonathan, however, she loves being part of "a nice couple ... better off in every significant way together than alone ... with their own jokes, their own memories, and their own impregnable psychic space."
Gradually, Nicola admits that Jonathan isn't ready for commitment. In the solitude forced upon her, she slowly realizes the little stratagems of denial that she used to keep her relationship alive.
As a successful lawyer, Jonathan carries all the trappings of stability, but he remains tragically cautious, too cautious to risk loving someone or losing his dear privacy. Even while Nicola's friends mock him, there's something tragic about Jonathan's chilliness, his determined indifference, and the horrible isolation he courts and then curses.
On the fulcrum of her attention to the way people talk, St. John maintains a remarkable balance between wit and sadness. The men and women in this novel don't need to realize they're from different planets. They need to realize they're from the same one. St. John knows that.
* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.