Saturday, November 18, 2017
Books

Review: Courtney Maum's novel an exercise in wit and 'Fun'

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Richard Haddon, the morose British artist at the center of Courtney Maum's amusing yet still heartfelt new novel, used to be devoted to the avant-garde. He made mixed-media collages using saw blades and driftwood and melted ramen noodle packets. He wrapped toy soldiers in Bubble Wrap to make a statement. He was confident and energetic and young. He even used to listen to Peaches.

Now, though, things have changed. Richard's art has finally found a market, but he's deeply unhappy about the conventional turn it has taken. ("If you had told me 10 years ago that I'd be building my artistic reputation on a series of realistic oil paintings of rooms viewed through a keyhole. . . .")

He can't stop moping because his American mistress has dumped him to marry a cutlery designer (really). Richard is married to Anne-Laure, a smart, gorgeous attorney. They have a young daughter, Camille, and they live in Paris. Anne-Laure's parents are wealthy. He should be happy. Instead, he broods and allows a special painting he did for his wife back when they were madly in love to be sold. Then he grows desperate, believing the only way to repair his disastrous error is to get the painting back.

I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You is a midlife crisis novel, but Maum — a humor columnist as well as a fiction and screenwriter — has enough inventiveness and wit to make Richard's dilemma feel fresh. Her compassion for Richard is evident. He knows he has made a mess of his life even as he sabotages himself, and she invests readers in his fate while being perfectly clear he's responsible for his own bad behavior. Trying to deserve our blessings and failing is just so painfully human.

The novel also has plenty of funny observations on the peculiarities of living in the City of Light and the differences in living there rather than the United States or United Kingdom. (Maum is married to a French director and spends part of her time in Paris.)

"I certainly can't blame the French education system for the problems in my marriage," Richard admits. "In fact, I'd say that the French make it almost too easy to have a life when you're a parent. State-subsidized spaces in the neighborhood nursery are every citizen's right, and the public school system is gratis. The cafeteria serves a cheese course. . . . If Anne and I already have rows over our vacation and recreation fund on her fancy lawyer salary and my less fancy artist one with a daughter in a free school that serves her duck casserole and Reblochon before naptime, I can only imagine what would happen if we had to dole out fifty grand a year so that Cam could get felt up on a pool table littered with plastic Solo Cups by some imbecile named Chuck."

As Richard scrambles to woo back his wife, he's suddenly moved to create the sort of meaningful art he made in his youth. (The looming American invasion of Iraq provides the inspiration.) Maum sets Richard's anxious artistic rebirth against questions on love, fidelity and family — Richard also finds hope in observing his parents, though he has always viewed them as staid. With this warm, reflective novel, Maum seems to be nodding sagely at what we know to be true: Life is a mess, it's always a mess, and the struggle to be a better person goes on forever.

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