Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Widow

The Widow, by Pierre Rey
November, 1978 Berkley Medallion
(Originally published in France as La Veuve, 1976)

This is Pierre Rey's sequel to his bestselling The Greek, and while it's just as over-the-top as its predecessor, it still suffers from the same failing: namely, despicable characters who do little to redeem themselves.

Don't get me wrong; trash fiction is known for deliciously malevolent characters, characters the reader loves to hate. However such characters must be balanced by "good" or at least likeable characters. When every single character is despicable, the effect is lost, and it actually backfires on the writer: for why would anyone continue to read a novel in which he or she hates every single character on display?

Just as in The Greek, Pierre Rey excels at capturing the jet-set glamor of the haughty elite, going out of his way to drag each of them through the mud in various harebrained situations and bizarre predicaments. But what more could we expect from the co-creator of TNT? Rey has a genius for creating over-the-top situations which resolve in unexpected ways. He also has a genius for creating oddball characters with equally-oddball names. It's just that, in this case at least, I had a hard time stomaching it.

Maybe the fault was mine, as I began The Widow immediately after finishing The Greek. And this is a sequel in the true sense, for The Widow begins in the exact same scene in which The Greek ended. Indeed the transition between the two novels is seamless (despite The Widow having a different English translator than The Greek). But without a break between the novels it was hard to endure another 346 pages of backstabbing, malicious, hateful, and duplicitous characters.

As in the previous book, the protagonist takes much of the blame. Peggy Baltimore, nee Satrapoulos, nee (briefly) Kallenberg, is probably the worst of the bunch. All the more shocking when you realize she is the novel's analogue of Jackie Bouvier/Kennedy/Onassis. But, just as she was in The Greek, Peggy here is a conniving, self-centered, self-involved trollop who does little to endear the reader. In fact she's a more unlikeable protagonist than Socrates Satrapoulos was, which is really saying something.

The Widow opens with Peggy ditching the man she has just married: Herman Kallenberg, shipping magnate and lifelong enemy of Peggy's recently dead husband, Socrates Satrapoulos. Peggy's ditched Kallenberg because she's just been informed of a discovery, made through illicit means -- namely, that Satrapoulos left a hidden clause in his will that, if Peggy still bears his name two years after his death, she will inherit 50 million dollars. So, Peggy attacks Kallenberg on their wedding night and takes off. (Admittedly Kallenberg deserves the rum treatment; the guy did cause the death of his wife Irene in the previous novel, after all.)

When the narrative picks up a year later, in 1974, Peggy learns that she's been framed: there is no hidden clause and she will not get 50 million dollars. We also learn that in this time she has racked up all sorts of bills in her jet-setting life (in the course of which she has also ignored her three teenaged children). So...what? Are we supposed to feel sorry for her? Outraged that she's been screwed over? Instead I cheered, but Rey intends this woman to be our hero. Thus we have the major problem with The Widow. It's quite difficult to root for a hero you despise.

Whereas The Greek was all about the glamour of the jet-set, with wealthy people hopscotching about the world in their yachts and private jets, The Widow becomes more of a half-baked comedy. Peggy it develops is wanted by a whole host of agencies: the Baltimore clan, who want to use her name for the upcoming elections; a famous tabloid writer named Lucy Madden who hates Peggy and wages a smear campaign against her; and finally a shady right-wing organization which is prepared to "neutralize" Peggy if necessary. Meanwhile Peggy is on a hunt of her own, determined to marry a mega-wealthy man within 30 days, as she's down to her last $300,000 dollars -- and that's not nearly enough money for her to live on. She sets her sights on an 82 year-old billionaire named Archibald Knight.

Meanwhile there's a subplot with "Lone," aka Charlene, Peggy's 17 year-old daughter (who was not even mentioned in the previous novel). Ignored and abandoned by her mother, her father Scott long since dead, Lone now drifts around with other rich kids, smoking joints and falling in love with "Quick," a good-looking guy who wants to be a famous race car driver. This subplot is also wearying as Lone proves herself just as despicable as her mother -- and also, Quick is such a self-involved ass that you wonder why Lone (and, eventually, Peggy herself) is so crazy about him.

As the novel goes on the sequel nature is dropped and it becomes solely about Peggy Baltimore and her pal Lindy Nut trying to snare a wealthy husband for Peggy. The characters from The Greek are no longer mentioned, and indeed a whole slew of new characters appear, people who supposedly have been friends/lovers of Peggy for years, but suspiciously went unmentioned in the previous novel. This has the unfortunate result that Peggy is the sole star of The Widow, which makes for tough going for the reader. How long can you read about her throwing tantrums at her servants while scrambling to come upon enough money to pay for her mounting debts? And it's not like we're talking about a Jackie Collins sort of anti-heroine, such as Joan Collins would, Peggy doesn't even have that much panache.

There are a few oddball characters to brighten things, as expected from Rey: Sliman Ben Sliman, an Emirate business representative, who flies around on his own jet which has been custom-fitted into a sort of harem on wings, complete with a rotating supply of whores. Then there's gossipist Lucy Madden, an obese, sixty year-old virgin who has made her name creating scandalous stories about celebrities. She lives in an apartment filled with birds; one of them, a grackle named Arthur, has been trained so that when Lucy calls him "little hooligan," Artur will shriek back: "Fat slut! Tramp!" and Lucy gets off on it.

But these characters are not present enough to save the novel. I hate to say this, as I loved TNT, but The Widow is just not very good. I'm guessing it's intended as a comedy, yet another spoof of Harold Robbins-type novels, just as its predecessor had been. But at least The Greek had more of an emotional balance, a few genuinely moving moments. At least in that novel, characters (eventually) learned the errors of their ways. Not so in The Widow, where Peggy is just as self-involved in the end as she was in the beginning -- and, worse yet, even comes out on top.

At least I'm not alone in my dislike of this novel. Whereas The Greek featured several industry reviews on the front and back cover, The Widow has none. Which brings to mind the old "if you've got nothing good to say..." cliche. Not only that but Berkley Medallion dropped Rey after this novel; his next two novels translated into English were published by Bantam.

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