The Spa, by Fay Weldon

The Spa by Fay Weldon
The Spa by Fay Weldon

Back from a long hiatus. Which means I’ve built up a backlog of books I can’t wait to talk about. But one of the most intriguing, and the place I’ll begin, was my first introduction to Fay Weldon in The Spa. This book barely rates two stars on most of the online review boards, at least the American ones. (I wonder how it was received in Britain, upon its first publication.) Weldon is an accomplished author with a long backlist, so it’s a matter of interest how she could come out with such a clinker.

“Clinker” being a relative term. I enjoyed this book hugely.

I’m still trying to figure out why. The opening pages, indeed the first few chapters, are not particularly inviting. Phoebe, the central character (and the character collating the stories that other characters will tell, in a fashion more secretarial or research-assistantish than Chaucerian or even Boccaccian) is stiff, starchy, and charmless, to put it nicely. Left on her own over the Christmas holiday, she books a cut-rate deal at a northern spa and then goes to her favorite hairdresser to get some pre-spa grooming (one does not want to present oneself poorly to one’s well-off, spa-bound companions, of course). There she hears a horrible story about adultery, betrayal, grief, suicide, homicide, and other general mayhem–a story that strikes Phoebe as vaguely repulsive, and certainly depressing news, though her chief annoyance is the absent husband (tending to his mother) and– more distressing, it would seem–a bathroom that needs renovating, thanks to the distractedness of said husband.

Once at the spa, introduced to characters who also seem stiff and caricatured, hardly real or likeable or even interesting, the novel moves quickly into its central device, that of the story-telling. The first stories seem little better than lurid tabloid tales. The first saga, of the trophy wife who starts a tablecloth on fire at a party she is hosting because her husband puts his tongue in the mouth of another woman, only continues the theme of sexual betrayal, sexual violence, feminine deception, and female rage that will be the running theme of both the individual tales and the frame story. The trophy wife, who supposedly gets convicted for arson and spends two years in a Greek prison, is not in the least convincing as either a felon, an ex-con, an aggrieved woman, or as being on the hunt for the next man to wear on her arm.

Shortly thereafter, the journalist (who is fleeing an affair with a married man who is making her unhappy) tells a story about being held at gunpoint during a different spa treatment elsewhere and being forced to listen to the stylist’s story of sacrificing her time, her labor, her body, and her pride to completely renovate a building for a ne’er-do-well nobleman who then promptly jilts her for a thinner and prettier model (and who, with his new wife, ends up murdered, too). Completely unbelievable, offensive, outrageous, and unrealistic.

At this point, I couldn’t put it down.

Was it the tabloid trashiness that sunk its claws into me? Was it the luridness of tales of people behaving in ways that not only had little semblance to reality, but little of logic or even passion to motivate them? The tales themselves just seemed the crassest and most indicting depictions of female craziness that it was possible for a misogynistic society to conjure. To depict powerful, accomplished women at a spa who could talk about nothing but their sadly tragic and/or bizarre love lives seemed the kind of anti-woman propaganda that a male novelist would (hopefully) be disemboweled for. But then Weldon turned her eye on female suffering as subject, in that puzzled, slightly acrid, yet still slightly mannered tone (American readers can imagine it said in an upper-crust British accent):

And I thought how strange it was, and how often it happened, that such seemingly strong, cheerful, independent women . . . should so often end up in this sorry masochistic state, crumbled crying on a bed (282).

This, indeed, was a problem worth thinking about. I was sold.

Somewhere about one-third, or perhaps one-half of the way into the book, the stiff writing eased into fluidity. Phoebe began to look more like a character than a flimsy knock-off of Weldon herself (British; wealthy; authoress). She worried that her husband was cheating on her, away there in Kansas with Phoebe’s attractive former best friend inconveniently near. The other women began to relate to one another, forming friendships, revealing vulnerabilities, showing a bit of dimension. I’m a sucker for female bonding; sisterhood, after all, is often so much stronger, most lasting, more forgiving, and more truthful than most sexual relationships. Maybe that explains the book’s attraction for me. But then Weldon began to explore the whole idea of humanity, culture, society, and relationship as contained within this microcosm of femininity, closed off from the world by the holiday, a strike on the part of the staff, an enormous snowstorm (naturally), and vague if unproven rumors of an epidemic of bird-like Sumatra flu.

Everything seemed suddenly very beautiful and very dangerous (281).

Like the world itself. Like real life.

Pressed by all these forces, Phoebe makes the choice to trust. To be kind. To forgive, to hope, to believe in the best, and to treat the women around her with tender regard. At this, the book took on a much-needed dimension of heart, power, and relevance for me:

All the fears and angers of the world were massed outside the walls–just a shove and they’d have given. Pandemic would have struck . . . And then the enemy had drawn back–the video had rewound, back to the beginning, because of me. We could start again. Mad! My solipsism, I could see, knew no bounds (256-7).

And thus the stilted, stiff-necked Phoebe won my heart. The passage not only thrummed a personal chord but struck me as uniquely brilliant. In the force of an overwhelming onslaught of problems, sorrows, tragedies, and disasters that rush at us from every corner of the world, what do we do as humans but withdraw into protected spaces, isolate if necessary, search for comfort in material pleasures and in each other? The human’s capacity to ignore, to adapt, to continue with self-destructive behaviors in the face of all logic or evidence, which these characters demonstrate repeatedly and which Phoebe gradually becomes wise to, is the burning heart at this book’s core. But more than that, our peculiar belief that we somehow control everything around us–that the world is made ill or good by our behavior, our choices, or our very attitude: she captured this with perfect irony and lucidity. It’s a terrible indictment of the woo-woo New Age thinking that we can influence our surroundings by the force of our will and yet true to the purely psychological and sensory phenomenon that we create our own reality, inside our brains, by what we perceive, how we process it, and what meaning we choose to attach.

This idea, then, overtook the book, and the repellent stories ceased, the sexual violence eased into saner and deeper and more caring interactions, and the women began to emerge into something like real people–more human, more fragile, more perpetually vulnerable to the forces besieging them, and more resilient, even powerful, than they had guessed.

In the end, there is even a vague sense of redemption (I’m a sucker for that, too) as many of the women find better footing in their own lives and return to their world shored up by their shared community, their joined survival of near-disaster, the freedom of having related truthfully and nakedly with one another. By that point, I had forgotten my initial resistance to the book as misogynistic portrayals of despicable behavior on the part of women who ought to know better (the reader’s prerogative: to impose her own virtuous and self-righteous expectations for behavior on characters in fiction). I felt like I, too, had emerged from a storm, my perspective changed, my world broadened, my heart opened and made more generous by having been exposed to, and made gentle by, the sufferings of my fellow female creatures.

But how do we manage to live at all, attend to our own small lives with such passion, in the face of so many dangers? That’s the marvel (257).

Indeed.