An unconventional family is at the centre of Mating for Life, Marissa Stapley’s debut novel. Now in her 60s, Helen Sear is a retired folk singer who has had three daughters by three different men, all out of wedlock. The novel tracks the challenges the three daughters, two of whom are married, face in their respective relationships: There is Fiona, the oldest, whose meticulously crafted suburban marriage begins to come undone with the discovery of her husband’s secret; Ilsa, an artist, who finds herself trapped in a sexless marriage and dreaming of adultery with a famous artist in the neighbourhood; and Liane, an academic, who has just become engaged to her long-term boyfriend but can’t muster enthusiasm about marrying him. The novel branches out to include the points of view of many women, most of whom are grappling with problems in a relationship, from unrequited love to marital dissatisfaction.
A locus of activity is the cottage where the women spend their summers, and it is also where Helen and Liane find new romances, which will only have a chance to flourish if each woman is willing to make an adjustment to unexpected circumstances. Helen finds herself in love with a traditional Catholic man, Iain, who wants marriage, an institution she abhors. Liane’s new flame is newly divorced with two children, one of whom is a sulky teenager who resents Liane’s presence in the home.
The summer cottage setting and publication date of Mating for Life are appropriate to its content, which seems tailored to the desires of the beach reader. The pages fly swiftly as each woman’s individual drama unfolds, with few holding centre stage for long. Most of the plot threads unfold in ways that hold the comfort of the expected; nothing ever gets too dire, even when it does. There is a moment of near-tragedy that is somehow borne lightly, perhaps because it concerns an undeveloped character and is resolved within a brief number of pages. Otherwise, nothing is made too uncomfortable for a reader reclining beachside: if one of the protagonists cheats on her husband, it is because he repeatedly and inexplicably rejected her lingerie-clad advances even when she was near tears with desperation. If another breaks up with her fiancé, we only wonder what took her so long when he was the sort of person to respond to her career-related ennui with a fatherly refrain such as: “…That’s what happens, but you’ve found your niche and you need to stick with it now. You’ll get out of the slump.” The life-ruining secret of Fiona’s husband, Tim, is framed so inoffensively, from every angle, that the suspense as to whether or not it will destroy their marriage seems negligible.
The bonds between mother and daughters is a central theme of the novel, and these are rendered complicated due to Helen’s unusual choices – each of the girls struggles with the legacy of an absent or disappointing father. This conflict – between the daughters’ love for their mother and their feelings about their fathers – creates another theme of the novel that may have been less deliberate: most if not all the female characters in Mating for Life are preoccupied with the men in their lives. While characters like Helen, Ilsa, and Liane have artistic passions or careers, these vocations seem like a sideshow or a mild distraction from their relationships. This may be all the more noticeable since the characters are painted to adhere to type, in particular the unfortunate Fiona. The ultimate neurotic, perfectionist suburban housewife, Fiona’s obsession with being “perfect” as a wife and homemaker is reiterated constantly rather than being allowed to emerge naturally through dialogue and action. And while Helen seems as if she ought to be a fascinating character – having fled her parents’ home as a young girl, penniless, and busked her way to a gold record – the creativity and spirit such a background suggests are rarely reflected on the page.
The best moments of the novel may be the humorous vignettes that feel like real highlights of the life of a hippie folk singer, such as, “Liane had pictured the shaman as a frightening character with a headdress made of dead animal skulls and felt foolish when, years later, it turned out he was an old friend of Helen’s named Bob.”
While suspense is likely out of the equation, readers looking for some light escapism in the vein of Love Actually, with other rom-coms sprinkled liberally in the mix, will find that time with this novel passes at an easeful clip.
Ilana Teitelbaum is a writer living in New York.