Having brought a subtlety and grace to adulterous wives and gay teenagers in her previous novels, Jane Hamilton summons neither convincingly in delivering the same consideration to the small-town trio at the center of her sixth novel, Laura Rider’s Masterpiece. At best, she applies her wit unevenly to a simultaneous homage and deconstruction of the modern romance through a reader’s quest to create one from the circumstances of her own life.
Gardening-store owner Laura Rider decides she wants to be a romance novelist around the time she first meets her idol, public-radio host Jenna Faroli, who interviews the acclaimed authors of the day and moves in cultured circles far beyond her new hometown of Hartley, Wisconsin. Struggling to create her characters out of whole cloth, Laura finds a surprising source of inspiration in her husband Charlie’s accidental encounter with Jenna on a dark, mysterious night. Instead of guarding her sexless but friendly marriage, Laura not only encourages her husband, not a public-radio listener himself, to e-mail Jenna, she helps him write the e-mails. Laura’s promising career as an e-Cyrano only screeches to a halt when Charlie and Jenna begin meeting in person, and not exactly to discuss books, which dries up the well of inspiration Laura found in her concocted romance.
Hamilton retains some tropes from the modern romance: Charlie, whose physical characteristics are hazily depicted at best, has no major talent other than his abilities in bed. (They’re wincingly depicted, but at least lacking in the usual clichés.) Instead of Jenna being the classical heroine ignorant of her feelings, it’s Laura who realizes too late exactly what she had been meaning to set into motion, a struggle which initially presents itself as a dilemma over where the lovers fit into the “types” depicted in her writer’s guide.
It’s a neat subversion, but it isn’t enough to overcome the leadenness of what should be, at least at the start, a charming romp. The would-be writer steels herself against the consequences of her actions by telling herself that the build-up and the seduction are the most important parts of romance, but Laura Rider’s Masterpiece disregards her own advice to rush to the outcome of the experiment, while out-of-nowhere swipes at Jenna’s brainy husband and Laura’s modest wardrobe seem like barbed afterthoughts instead of a carefully considered critique. The impasse that the trio reaches, neither functioning on the level of satire nor being able to stand on its own, turns out preposterous, and its inevitable end is a relief.