Sometimes reality overtakes the novel of our lives. Julie Metz was married to Henry, and, as marriages go, it was ticking over pretty well. Both writers, the pair shared house space in a rational way, and their little daughter Liza was the adored center of their small universe. Henry and Julie didn’t like everything about each other, but marriage can become that way, a little frayed around the edges, after 12 years. Can’t it?
Then Henry died suddenly of a heart attack, and Julie’s world crashed in ways she never could have suspected. Or could she?
Within hours after Henry’s demise, people close to Julie expunged hundreds of passionate emails that he had rattled off to his several amours, often consulting with one about the other, rarely mentioning his wife or her feelings. So the only jarring notes that penetrated Julie’s grief in the early days of widowhood were the sound of a woman screaming in the next room and the sight of her friend Cathy weeping inconsolably at Henry’s funeral. What was that about?
The revelations began to trickle in to her numbed consciousness a few months after Henry’s death. One friend told her about one of Henry’s women. Then another, about another. The total picture, emerging gradually over the course of this well-crafted memoir, was damning. Henry had been having sexual affairs from the beginning of their marriage and most of the way through, the worst of which involved Cathy. Cathy was supposedly Julie’s buddy, part of a couple among the couples who lounged around the pool, her daughter the best friend of Julie’s Liza.
Painfully, the newly widowed Julie was forced to find a way to forget, if not forgive, Henry. All the while she found herself “haunted” by the spirit of her departed spouse, who she believed was rueful and longing to confess. Julie decided to contact each of Henry’s women, a process that was slow, agonizing and sometimes surprising. Most of the ladies expressed their culpability and made humble apologies to the wronged wife, except Cathy, a poisonous personality in Julie’s estimation, capable of keeping up the pretense of friendship for years while having sex with Henry, sometimes in the house while Julie worked, unheeding, in her writer’s study.
The contacts made with Henry’s women formed the basis for a healing process that Julie had to go through in order to take the next steps in her life. She talked to Christine by phone; from the other side of the country, Christine tried to explain away her affair with Henry and befriend Julie, but this attempt rang hollow. With only one of the many females on Henry’s list was Julie able to bond --- a dark, New Age-y type about whom Henry obsessed and pouted. Julie learned that she could accept some of Eliana’s mystical mumbo-jumbo along with what seemed genuine remorse. Unlike the other women embroiled in Henry’s life, Eliana saw in Henry’s death a mandate to change her promiscuous ways and learn to face consequences. In improving herself, Eliana offered a strange solace to the woman she wronged.
Most women seek protective long-term mates, while many men derive ego satisfaction from philandering, experimenting, or, as Henry described it, “risk.” A charming liar, Henry believed he could conjure up the perfect woman, a petite brunette like Julie who would excite him like Cathy and mentor him like Christine. Too bad. He never found his ideal. And left a wife and daughter to comb through the mess he left behind, searching for clues to his doomed and damaging explorations.
Metz’s chronicle, subtitled “A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal,” is a fitting tribute to marriage, a dear-bought finding on what it means to make vows and try to keep them. It is also a passionless examination of why the battle of the sexes continues to rage, with each side having a different view of the ultimate and desired outcome. Metz finds resolution with a new partner, after many trial relationships and a long period of mourning, humiliation, anger and shock.
Anyone who has been betrayed in love will empathize with the author’s anguish and take comfort in her resolve to let the past go and cherish the present moment, which carries its own depth charge of perfection. “Men and women can’t live with each other easily,” she concludes, “but we must live together, otherwise we’ll all die out. So we must muddle along….” Henry was unwilling to muddle along, but Julie has learned how.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on May 2, 2011
Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal