Now in her 70s, Fay Weldon has written for 40 years about women struggling to balance their careers with family, and their sexual proclivities with the mores of their particular era. In her latest novel, She May Not Leave, the prolific author delves into the ups and downs of modern childparenting.
Londoners Hattie and Martyn, who for various reasons are partnered, not married, have a six-month-old daughter, Kitty. Hattie is taking maternity leave from her job as a high-powered literary agent specializing in foreign acquisitions. But she is feeling increasingly unfulfilled as a milk-producing changer of nappies, and wants to hire an au pair so she can get back to the gossip, infighting, the amphetamine effect of deadlines, and the swirling soap opera of office life. Martyn balks, however. A leftist journalist and budding politician, he questions whether it's actually principled to have a servant.
But hire an au pair they do, though Hattie's vague picture of a simple farm girl . . . with a poor education proves to be a bit off the mark. Agnieska turns out to be wholesomely appealing, especially when practicing her belly dancing in Martyn's fascinated presence. She calms the previously cranky Kitty, prepares gourmet meals, (incidentally adding pounds to Hattie's previously lithe figure), and accompanies the couple to so many gatherings she is often assumed to be Martyn's wife. But Hattie trusts her, seeing Agnieska as far too serious for sexual hanky-panky. All these developments are seen through the eyes of Hattie's 72-year-old Gran Frances, who narrates the story, intermittently reminiscing about her past, giving Weldon the chance to expound on child-rearing practices in the '50s and '60s and work in some eye-opening morsels from her own somewhat uninhibited early years, which first appeared in her 2003 autobiography, Auto Da Fay. It is soon obvious that Agnieska is not all she appears to be. When the immigration authorities catch on and Agnieska is threatened with deportation, Weldon leads her mismatched and bizarrely bonded threesome to what both Frances and the reader assume will be a debacle but the ending contains a unique twist, offering Weldon one more witty and ironic dig at conventional norms. And one more plug for the wisdom accompanying age, as Frances and her sister conclude, Some find fecundity to be a blessing, others a curse, which sums up this wickedly humorous novel in a nutshell. Deborah Donovan writes from Cincinnati and La Veta, Colorado.