The Man Who Wasn't There
Imagine, if you will, one of those big-ass 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzles, the pricey kind that you purchase at chic bookstores and which feature incredibly complex art work by Bosch or Delacroix (and which, unless you are a bona fide jigsaw puzzle aficionado or suffering from an intractable case of ennui, will languish in the box unopened for months or years until you recycle it as a desperation gift to a least-favorite relative some holiday season.)
Now, imagine that you have no idea what the subject of the jigsaw puzzle is. The box is unmarked; there is no picture on it to give you a clue what you are reconstructing. You’ll just have to put it together to find out. So you commence with the pieces that comprise the corners, of course, and then the perimeter, and then you keep filling it in, patiently, little by little, until you have used up all the pieces.
And then you discover that the pieces for the middle of the puzzle are missing. The rest of it is complete in startling detail, but the center, the main focus, of the picture is simply not there. You can tell by the outline made by the other pieces that the missing component is man-shaped, but the particulars, the distinguishing features, the defining characteristics—the essence of who and what this man is—remain unknown quantities.
This is the conundrum created by Jennifer Haigh’s compelling debut novel, Mrs. Kimble, a book that is, at once, as pop culture-contemporary as a tabloid TV show and as timeless as the mystery of love itself. Much like its enigmatic and mostly absent male character, Ken Kimble, this complex tale of three women unhappily married at different times to the same man is not what it appears to be at first glance, or even second or third.
On the surface, it might be easily dismissed as an all-too-familiar cautionary account of what happens when women depend too much on men to validate them and use them to fill in the blanks in their psyches much as one fills in empty spaces in a day planner. The book does work, to some extent, at this level. The three ultimately unlucky-in-love Mrs. Kimbles have voids that the rather mysterious Mr. Kimble seems uniquely qualified—and quite willing—to fill.
But there is a great deal more going on here than a refresher course in Feminist Principles 101. Haigh’s deft hand at sculpting her female characters leaves no room for easy stereotypes and tidily glib plot summaries. Like a surgeon, she cuts to the bone of what makes love between two people such an elusive, baffling, frustrating, contradictory, confounding sort of thing. Why are people—intelligent people, well-educated people, even Third-Wave feminist sort of people—attracted to certain partners that everyone else can plainly see are wrong for them? The author navigates these treacherous emotional waters with a steady hand but a gentle touch. There is no judgment here; only a keen-eyed revelation of the human condition in its best and worst moments.
The three Mrs. Kimbles are among the most appealing and memorable characters in recent fiction, easily vying with the fascinating trio of women in The Hours. Haigh reaches inside her female characters, who together comprise a composite picture of Everywoman, and turns them inside out like a sock, exposing their thoughts and feelings with an honesty that is admirable. Do all their actions and decisions make sense? No—but then, neither do all of ours, in real life, if we’re being honest. The book raises as many questions as it answers, and in that lies its true significance, a certain authenticity of voice that compels one to read on in spite—or perhaps because of—the contradictions. The first 100 pages of the book—devoted to the spectacular public humiliation of the first Mrs. Kimble as she falls down the harrowing rabbit hole of desperation after her minister husband runs off with a teenage member of the flock—is some of the best and most compelling writing I’ve seen in years. Although there is very little action per se in the book, it is as spellbinding and un-put-downable as any thriller. Haigh’s narrative skills are formidable in creating powerfully empathetic female characters who, like mythology’s Sirens, beguile the reader to venture into the rocky and perilous shoals of their mixed blessing marriages to what can only be termed a “mystery man.”
Like the jigsaw puzzle where the borders are complete, the portraits of the three disparate Mrs. Kimbles are vivid and comprehensive—so much so, in fact, that one is tempted to believe that this actually is the story of three women with one man in common, as the book’s title might well indicate. In the end, though, one must admit that the main character of the story—and missing center of the puzzle—is the curiously charismatic Ken Kimble, an unlikely Casanova, who wanders in and out of the lives of people with an appalling casualness and leaves his indelible mark, for better or worse. He has an astounding effect on the women whose lives he touches, a frightening ability to evoke powerful responses without his even trying. This is his impact on his first wife, Birdie, having done little but exist as her choir director in Bible college and offer her sympathy about her asthmatic condition:
She wanted to lift her skirt and show him her knees, decorated with childhood scars; to tell him about the woman her father had just married, now using her mother’s things. She wanted to take off her clothes and show him everything.
Ascendant by his absence, Ken Kimble makes few personal appearances in the pages of the novel, and those he does leave a strong but still inconclusive impression. In many ways, he is ordinary, so like many other men—uncomfortable with public displays of affection, punctilious, methodical, precise, unsentimental, a man with definite tastes in food and habits, meticulous about his clothes, not prone to outbursts or fits of temper but nonetheless quietly demanding of self and others. When the initial flurry of hormonal excitement is over, he’s pretty damned boring, domestically speaking. But this man has more sides than a polyhedron.
While utterly responsible in fulfilling his obligations when he has them, he is also a man who can turn on a dime and desert wives and children without apparent remorse. Better still, he can pull a switcheroo when it’s advantageous and re-ingratiate himself with prior wives so convincingly that he can walk off with the children he once abandoned, and nobody questions his doing this. He is the ultimate chameleon, taking on the protective colorations of his present environment, whatever it might be. He can be a Christian minister and yet pass himself off as a Jew when it’s expedient, a hippie one minute and a yuppie real estate huckster the next, a philanthropist and a wheeler-dealer at the same time, and never drop a stitch or raise an eyebrow of suspicion. He is compulsive liar, a fraud, an imposter, a poseur.
To confuse the issue even further, though, Ken Kimble also appears to be a man of remarkable sensitivities, capable of intuiting others’ pain and need. He makes generous gestures without fanfare and goes to extremes to give others what they want, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. He spends a fortune for surgery to restore the birthmark-damaged face of his third wife (although he finds her quite beautiful as she is and she has grown used to her handicap), and abducts the children of his first marriage in order to give his second wife, who cannot conceive, a real family—measures he clearly does not consider particularly extraordinary.
Ken Kimble would seem a diabolical Don Juan, the very personification of male chauvinist evil, a Svengali of vile proportions, were it not that all his conquests seem to fall effortlessly in his lap and all the women are such willing victims. He is an unwitting success at every romantic conquest he’s never even really attempted to make. His is the classic case of being in the right place at the right time, much less the manipulator than the consummate opportunist, not so much cunning as simply careful in a rather obsessive manner to make the very most out of everything that comes his way. His skill is not romantic, not intellectual, not even practical. He is simply incredibly, unbelievably, instinctively, Darwinianly adaptive, and that is why he survives so long and thrives so amazingly throughout the tangled web of his ever more convoluted and confusing life.
Mrs. Kimble is reminiscent of the human interest features on TV news magazine shows on which the wives of polygamists and compulsive criminals and men with secret lives try to explain how they fell for someone like that. In the end, the reality remains that no one can explain the chemistry that draws people together and ultimately throws them apart once again, like a tide no one can chart. In this book, we get an unsensationalized, insider’s view of quixotic and paradoxical emotional relationships, the highs and lows, the idiosyncratic balance of give-and-take that in the final analysis makes it hard to say exactly who was the winner and who was the loser, who was the user and who was the used, who the victimizer and who the victim.
While not daring from a literary standpoint, it is a risky marketing strategy to create characters who are so real that their loose ends can’t be tidily tied up on the last page. Ken Kimble remains the great empty, inexplicable blank in the middle of a human puzzle. The three Mrs. Kimbles, in spite of the author’s fine-honed rendering of them, also remain fascinating enigmas, people who cannot be explained or pigeon-holed or stereotyped, no matter how much we know about them. There is no pat answer, pop psychology explanation, facile Dr. Phil solution, or convenient resolution to the conflicts and questions raised in this book. And the questions are ones that hit close enough to home to raise the hairs on the back of our neck. How well do really we know partners? Our family members? The closest people to us? Ourselves?
Mrs. Kimble gently explores dark areas we’d probably prefer to overlook. This is slice-of-life writing at its very best and most provocative.