The hands of time stop for no one, not even Lauren Fox. With each new novel, the characters of this irrepressibly comedic chronicler of friendship, marriage, and romantic foibles among white Milwaukeean Generation X-ers advance and mature in concert with their author. And yet her prose remains as fresh as if it spritzed from the wordsmith’s fountain of youth.
With “Days of Awe,” however, Fox’s insouciance is tempered by an omnipresent awareness of “that cold lick of mortality.” At 43, her protagonist, Isabel, is entering the final lap of what Gail Sheehy classifies as First Adulthood. Over the course of a 15-year marriage, she has had four miscarriages and raised a bright 10-year-old daughter who can’t get to sleep at night because, in her own words, “it’s like you’re practicing to die. ” Everywhere Isabel turns, there are aging parents thickening the atmosphere with aging-parent stuff. And just the previous year, her colleague and best friend, an eccentric artist named Josie, had crashed her car headlong into a guardrail and been laid to rest in the shadow of an interstate highway.
As in Fox’s last novel, “Friends Like Us,” the bonds linking her chief characters are tight to a degree that feels almost incestuous. In addition to rubbing shoulders with Isabel as teachers at the same grade school, where they prevailed thanks to a mutual appreciation for gallows humor, Josie married Mark, a childhood buddy of Isabel’s with whom she was tethered by name since kindergarten (“Mark Abrams and Isabel Applebaum, two little alphabetized Jews, dark haired and slightly lost in a forest of Midwestern consonant clusters, all those strapping blond Schultzes and Metzgers and Hrubys and Przybylskis”). Josie also filled in as honorary aunt to Isabel’s sleep-phobic daughter, Hannah, bearing treats and doing kid-sitting duty whenever Isabel and her husband, Chris, needed to perform reparative therapy on their sinking marriage.
In a classic curtain-raising gambit, Fox opens with Josie’s funeral, assembling all of the above and then some into a multigenerational chorus representing the oppositional poles of Isabel’s incipient midlife crisis. On the one end is a conspiratorial trio of younger teachers who have perpetually nipped at Josie’s and Isabel’s heels with little reminders of their age and inadequacies. On the other end is Isabel’s mother, Helene, whose close childhood shave with the Holocaust informs her worldview, as in her litmus test for all of her daughter’s non-Jewish boyfriends: “Is he the kind of person who would hide us in an attic?”
The funeral sets the stage for a life reevaluation in which Isabel not only lets go of her husband but also any idealized notions of her late friend. Her grief-tinged image of Josie’s gregariousness, artistry, and loyalty slowly unravel as she contemplates a series of workplace and romantic scenarios in which her friend acted questionably at best and inappropriately at worst. “But who was to say this wasn’t all just part of the glorious roller coaster that was Josie?” Isabel rationalizes. “If you loved the rush, you had to accept the nausea.”
The fearlessness with which Fox frees her women to behave badly heightens both the credibility and the pleasure of her fiction. Where the protagonists of “Friends Like Us” and “Still Life with Husband” recognize the folly of their choices, however, Isabel uses Josie’s frailties as a smoke screen for her own. Frankly, I found Isabel something of a pill: controlling in the ways in which she foists her own baggage of guilt for Josie’s death upon others, smug in the ways in which she sizes up the facilitator and attendees at a therapeutic support group, then holds back while they do all the heavy emotional lifting. Isabel draws upon righteous indignation like an energy source, draining our batteries of patience in the process.
Isabel and the novel she inhabits are more affecting, not to say amusing, in their workplace moments. Fox infuses her grade-school landscape with wry, Bel Kaufman-esque grace notes: the teacher focus groups on integrating drumming into the teaching of algebra, the dreaded after-school programs (the Mathletes and the acronymically regrettable Kool Knitting Klub). Where Isabel’s observational acuity can occasionally leave a bitter aftertaste, her ability to scrutinize a child and instantly discern the adult he or she will grow into is the sweetest corollary for the omniscient powers of the novelist.
DAYS OF AWE
By Lauren Fox
Knopf, 272 pp, $24.95
Jan Stuart is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.