The Stepmother’s Diary, by Fay Weldon
‘These modern, all-inclusive families of ours, created by the passing sexual interest of a couple in each other … can give birth to chaos’, observes Emily, a promiscuous north London Freud- ian analyst and mother of Sappho, the stepmother of the title. The novel begins when pregnant Sappho, on the run from her older, widowed husband, Gavin, thrusts a bag bulging with diaries and fictionalised autobiography into Emily’s hand. ‘Please don’t read them’, says Sappho. Of course I meant to read them, Emily silently tells the reader. I am a mother, and have my daughter’s best interests at heart.
One wonders in this book whether any character is capable of having the best interests of anyone else at heart — indeed, do any of them have a heart at all? To be benign is to be impotent in Fay Weldon’s world; any willed act equals harm. The device of the unreliable narrator is taken to extremes. Emily, the first narrator, has based her life round a central deception; Sappho’s father, Rob, committed suicide, but she told Sappho he died in an accident. In concealing the truth, did Emily seek to spare her daughter’s feelings or extract the maximum from her insurance claim? Emily has made over the family house where Rob died to Sappho; an act of generosity or a curse, given that the house is tainted by the death?
The Stepmother’s Diary is all about scripts. Emily believes that people script their lives to suit their desires. ‘Sometimes people mean what they say’, protests Barnaby, her relatively benign — and impotent — would-be lover. ‘Very seldom’, Emily replies. Sappho started as an actress, but soon found that
I’d rather write the lines than say them. I love the power writers have. ‘There is a massive explosion’ — just four words, but they mean at least ten people have to … create something more real than reality.
I make it five words; just one of several inaccuracies or inconsistencies, the most important of which is that the bag the fleeing Sappho hands to Emily contains an up-to-date account of her catastrophic split with Gavin. How did she have time to write it up, when it’s only just happened, and she’s on the run? Is this sloppiness on Weldon’s part, or has Sappho pre-scripted the demise of her marriage? This is such a tricksy novel that I can’t be sure.
Sappho becomes a scriptwriter whose only subject is herself. She’s so successful that, improbably, she pays a six-figure salary to Laura, her cool, marginalised PA. Laura orchestrates the lives of Sappho, Gavin and Gavin’s children, Arthur and Isobel. Arthur is a good-natured, rugby-playing cypher with smelly feet; Isobel, egged on by Gwen, her glamorous and extravagantly poisonous grandmother, is an evil Lolita out to destroy her father’s new marriage. Or is she? Is Sappho a well-meaning innocent who does not understand the forces of jealousy and incestuous desire unleashed by her marriage, or is she a manipulative masochist who brings about disaster to her own satisfaction?
Fay Weldon’s clever puppetry means that The Stepmother’s Diary is never less than entertaining, but her refusal to engage the reader’s sympathy means that it can’t be very much more.