North of the Tension Line, by J. F. Riordan (Beaufort, 478 pp., $24.95)
My initial impression of this book was: I’ve walked into the novelistic equivalent of a chick flick. What am I doing here — by myself? I go to these only in my wife’s company and at her behest.
Other male readers are likely to have the same first reaction. North of the Tension Line is a novel by a woman about women. Is it for women? Well, I wouldn’t say it’s not for women — but my judgment in the end is that it’s also for men, perhaps even primarily for men. A gifted female writer — one with a nearly Austenian gift for observing human nature and describing the quirks and foibles of the entire cast of characters one finds in the human drama — has produced a novel that reveals some things to us guys about how women’s minds and hearts work.
Women themselves, of course, already know these things. They can read North of the Tension Line for entertainment. Men should read it for instruction.
Fiona and Elisabeth, our heroines, are intelligent, attractive thirtysomething single women — and best friends. They have interests and professions — satisfying but not high-powered — and are far from preoccupied by the need to find Mr. Right. They are open to his walking into their lives and hopeful that someday he will: Finding him would be a good thing — indeed, a very good thing — and they’re not making the perfect the enemy of the good by holding out for the Ultimate Mr. Right when Mr. Right Enough will do. But neither are they pining away, or pursuing their avocational and professional interests as mere distractions while they wait. They have lives — lives worth living, lives in which non-romantic friends, jobs, passions, goals, and challenges of various sorts occupy them meaningfully and worthily.
Yet J. F. Riordan’s point is not the old feminist canard about a woman’s needing a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Quite the contrary. Fiona and Elisabeth are, like most women, sensible. Their hearts yearn for a special bond with one of those creatures on the other side of the mysterious line dividing the sexes, and their minds tell them that such a bond is worth the sacrifices — including some degree of loss of independence — required to establish and sustain that bond. They are not boy-crazy, nor are they imagining a knight in shining armor who will come astride a white charger to sweep them off their feet. What they want is a decent, honorable man, a man who is comfortable in his own skin and who is willing to be a man — a fellow whose gentle strength would complement their own strong gentleness.
There is nothing more familiar to readers and viewers these days than the story of a woman who manages to be caught up in an unhealthy relationship with every man in her life. She has, or had, an unhealthy relationship with her father; an unhealthy relationship with her first boyfriend, then her second, then third, and so forth; she has unhealthy non-romantic relationships with her guy friends, her boss, her dentist, her pastor, her plumber. She has an unhealthy relationship with her husband — one that doesn’t improve when he becomes her ex-husband. By the time her son is a teenager, she has an unhealthy relationship with him, too. Is the problem with her — or with them? In the standard plot, she begins by blaming herself. But, of course, enlightenment eventually comes when she realizes that the fault is not with her at all, but indeed with them — and even more fundamentally with the institutional sexism and sexist (and, of course, heterosexist) culture that is ultimately what is driving both their bad attitudes and behavior and her initial impulse to blame herself. Pretty soon she is “off men” and living happily ever after in a lesbian commune in central Massachusetts.
What’s refreshing about Riordan’s novel is that her protagonists have healthy relationships with men. And it isn’t because Fiona and Elisabeth — or the guys with whom they have romantic and non-romantic friendships — are perfect. They’re not. In fact, North of the Tension Line is a sort of study in how imperfect but fundamentally decent women and imperfect but fundamentally honorable men can relate to each other (whether their relationships are romantic or not) in constructive ways, and find satisfaction and contentment in their relationships. In fact, part of her message is that the project of navigating the mysteries involved in relating to people of the opposite sex can — and where our relationships are healthy almost certainly will — challenge us and change us in ways that make us better men and women than we were: a little less imperfect. Relating to each other across the mysterious divide takes effort, but it’s worth it. The payoff is genuine. There must be something to the idea that men and women are made for each other — that by entering each other’s lives they supply a lack and have a lack supplied.
What about the relationships between women and other women and men and other men? Perhaps part of the reason Riordan’s characters can relate in healthy ways to those of the opposite sex is that they have deep, constructive friendships with people of their own sex. The friendship between Fiona and Elisabeth is front and center, and a beautiful friendship it is. The two women delight in each other’s company and each appreciates and cares deeply for the other. They are cognizant of each other’s imperfections, but each is no less aware of her own deficiencies. And each is grateful to the other for the gift of her friendship. They are fast friends, loyal friends. Yet neither woman jealously worries that the entry of a man into the other’s life will weaken the lovely bond between them. On the contrary, they are pulling for each other on the boyfriend front — precisely because they appreciate that there is something good, something uniquely fulfilling, that even the deepest friendship between two women (or, I daresay, two men) cannot provide.
Most of the guys in the book are good guys, and their friendships with other guys are good friendships. J. F. Riordan finds countless ways — usually suitably subtle ways — to call attention to the deep bonds of affection good men can form with each other. Of course men, being men, don’t talk about their feelings much, but rather express them in actions — including in actions toward women or for their sakes. Because of the setting Riordan has chosen for her study, most of the men in the novel — at least those we get to know best — are skilled workers. They build things, or fix things, or do things (like run a ferry from the mainland to an island). They are not intellectuals. Indeed, most are a bit less intellectual than the women. But they are not less intelligent, nor are they less thoughtful. What they are, God bless them, is old-fashioned, even chivalrous. They respect the womenfolk, and even look up to them in various ways; but their instinct is to help them and protect them because . . . well, because that’s what good men do.
You may, gentle reader, be worried that North of the Tension Line has no villains, mean dogs, or ghosts. But fear not: There is an excellent villain — a woman, by the way — a scary mean dog, and an exemplary ghost. To avoid spoiling things for you, I’ll say no more about them than to report that Riordan’s verbal artistry is up to the challenging task of handling villains, mean dogs, and ghosts — which is saying something when reviewing a writer’s first novel.