by Isabel Fonseca

Knopf, 320 pp., $23.95

Isabel Fonseca's first novel begins with a bang as health columnist Jean Hubbard opens a pornographic letter addressed to her husband, Mark. Reading the salutation, "Dear Thing 1," as well as references to "Sexy Beast," "Naughtyboy," and "filthy old man," Jean finds it difficult to put the letter down.

She can hardly believe that the letter is referring to her 53-year old husband. As far as Jean (who's nearing 46) knows, she and Mark have a satisfying relationship, even though they are frustrated at times by conditions on St. Jacques, a tropical island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, where she's taking a sabbatical. With the knowledge she's gleaned from this letter, she now questions the stability of her marriage.

As with most first novels, the story possesses some similarity to Fonseca's real life--a situation made intriguing by the reputation of Martin Amis, her husband. Like Jean Hubbard, Fonseca is an American-born 46-year-old -(former) columnist who divides her time between London and Uruguay, with frequent visits to her roots in the United States.

Told through the eyes of the protagonist, Jean Hubbard, Attachment works on the principle of an unreliable point of view. As Jean sees it at first, there's no reason to think that Mark's been involved with other women: The head of a successful London advertising agency, he would have no time for such peccadilloes. But why would he make so many trips back to London? And why would he have mysteriously strayed from a conference he was attending a few years previous? What about the relationship he had long before Jean and Mark met?

Mark was only 17 when he fell in love with a French beauty who left him for another man. Complicated by a pregnancy, which may or may not have involved Mark, the affair ended with the birth of a daughter, Sophie, who is now in her late twenties and who might be a lesbian with an unseemly interest in Victoria, Mark and Jean's 19-year-old daughter. Jean isn't sure because Victoria lives in London where she's finishing college.

Adding to Jean's worry over Victoria is a possible diagnosis of breast cancer. Since the results of her mammogram are inconclusive, the island's doctors suggest she go to London for further tests. To make matters worse, Phyllis, Jean's mother, arrives--ostensibly for a maternal visit, but actually to let Jean know that her father has been having mini-strokes and will need surgery. In addition, Phyllis tells her that her father's infidelity many years earlier was the reason that she divorced him. Now, Jean, who always looked up to her father, really begins to distrust her husband.

The pattern seen throughout the novel goes like this: An incident occurs; it can be anything from finding the aforementioned letter to noticing the style of Mark's hair to remembering a comment that seemed slightly out of place. As Jean muses over the incident, the plot takes one small step forward, then goes back or sideways to fill in the context. The trouble is that the story tends to lose momentum, something which Fonseca tries mightily to sustain through a plethora of complications--everything from reminiscences of 9/11 to a blackout in New York (which endangers her father) to her own missed connections with Victoria. Half-seen events are misinterpreted; half-heard conversations lead to misunderstandings. Misunderstandings multiply and grow out of proportion.

Instead of confronting Mark directly, Jean gives her imagination full rein. At an email café, she initiates a correspondence with the author of the letter, a 26-year-old named Giovana, who seems to think that she is receiving a message from the filthy old man of her dreams.

Soon Jean has to leave what was once her island "paradise" to go back to London for a medical consultation. From London, she travels to New York and her father's hospital bed, where his condition has worsened. In both cities, she continues to email Giovanna, all the while fuming at Mark. As a tension reliever, she has an explicitly detailed one-night stand with Dan, sexual predator par excellence--and one of Mark's colleagues. She also reheats to boiling a former relationship that she had with Larry, one of her father's law partners.

Lest Attachment degenerate into a romance novel, Fonseca inserts numerous literary allusions. She liberally quotes lines from Philip Larkin's poetry and from his memoir. She makes several lengthy references to Milton's "Paradise Lost," as she puns the notion of losing her island paradise home as well as the paradise of her marriage and her own state of innocence, and Mark's. About halfway into the story Fonseca alludes to the plot of Othello, suggesting not too subtly that the circumstances of Mark's letter may have been a setup similar to the circumstances surrounding Desdemona's strawberry-embroidered handkerchief--with, perhaps, Dan or Sophie or even Larry as Iago.

The reader gets it right away, but Jean doesn't. It's only on the final pages that Jean understands what's going on. But by then, this story of aging and adultery has begun to seem like an overly long game of "He loves me; he loves me not."

Diane Scharper is editor of the forthcoming Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability.

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