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Book Review: My Favourite Wife by Tony Parsons

posted on 14 March 2009 | posted in Books

Book Review: My Favourite Wife by Tony Parsons Tony Parsons wrote a great book called "Man and Boy" back in 2001, and returns to the same blueprint with My Favourite Wife - a story of a man putting his marriage in jeopardy by having an affair.

We see how a man's life unravels because of his affair, and how he tries desperately to partition his double life with lies. Despite his cheating and lying, we are reminded of one of Parsons' bad habits: asking the reader to empathise with weak and selfish characters. I just ended up feeling - this Bill (the protaginist) is a bit of a douche. Yet putting much of the story in first person (Bill's point of view), the reader is obviously supposed to be the sympathetic ear.

So the background story: Bill takes his wife and daughter to Shanghai due to his work. They move into a plush apartment, complete with house maid. On the very first night in Shanghai, we are alerted to Bill's roving eye as he clocks a nice looking neighbour. And sure enough, an affair takes place not long after. And as night follows day, we're taken through the divided feelings of the main character. He loves his wife, his daughter and of course, his mistress. So now I'm into the story, wishing Bill the worst, just for kicks, waiting for his wife to find out. And so it happens much later on; the "gotcha" discovery from his wife, and her (inevitable) forgiveness. There are some sideline distractions along the way, like examples of Chinese corruption, the bar girl scene in Shanghai, and we get brief glimpses of the peripheral characters, like Shane the Aussie who marries a gold-digging Filipino (this story thread comes to a bloody, shocking end). These side stories are welcome relief from the templated Parsons plot.

We are also prompted to feel sorry for the mistress who is also a mistress to an uncaring and cold businessman who pays for her flat and upkeep. Then we're supposed to feel sorry for Bill because his mistress has another boyfriend. And so on and so forth. These are people that you just can't waste any sympathy on, given they are so self-absorbed. And what's the point of a story with characters you don't care about? The only thing I can think of is to hope the worst happens to them, to feel some vindication against such selfish characters.

The dénouement of the story involves Bill being moved up and down China taking flight after flight, battling powerful weather on the ground (to rescue his mistress, her son and her dad). This is where the plot lost me. Fair enough, the story up until now was a human one, about relationships, about human weakness. Now suddenly Bill is transformed into something of a hero. So not only is he indulgent throughout most of the book, he gets to be the hero at the end, while being forgiven by his wife.

Maybe Parsons is actually being a bit subversive here, and he has created a character who puts his case to you in first person, and you're meant to hate him, or at least be conflicted. But I doubt it.