The Ties That Bind

isabelfonsecamartinamis The Ties That BindAttachment

By Isabel Fonseca

Alfred A. Knopf, 306 pages, $23.95

Oh, to be Isabel Fonseca! A stunning brunette with high cheekbones and that glam international surname that suggests a yummy pairing of fontina and prosecco. Second wife of Martin Amis, easily among the top five writers working in the English language (never mind those scathing reviews of his recent Sept. 11 essay collection; part of genius is just being brave and prolific)—surely they’re not snarling at each other over whose turn it is to clean the cat’s litter box. Author of Bury Me Standing, a Serious Nonfiction Work about gypsies that took her four years of intense, virtuous immersion research … and now, with consummate versatility, of a novel as fruity and delicious as the cocktails served on the fictional tropical island of St. Jacques, where it’s primarily set.

It’s got a great title, too: redolent of Ian McEwan’s best-selling Atonement, “attachment” here refers both to a critical plot point involving cyber-correspondence, and to the broader themes of fidelity, longing and love that sustain most successful domestic fictions.

Our heroine is a health columnist named, with a wry whiff of 1950s suburbia, Jean Hubbard. Jean has been long married to Mark, a successful artist turned itinerant commercial adman with one of those alcohol problems that the Brits somehow make endearing. “He didn’t acknowledge stress,” Jean confides, “thinking it new-fangled and somehow American”—which she, like Ms. Fonseca, is.

Sequestered on the idyllic if remote isle; surrounded by lush, fecund, García Márquez-ish flora that throws her own encroaching physical decay into stark relief, Jean intercepts a letter that appears to be from her husband’s young, sexy lover, directing him to a secret e-mail address containing a trove of homemade pornography. The ostensibly wronged wife, logging on at a local Internet cafe, seems to find this more titillating than enraging; she chooses not to confront Mark immediately, but rather assume his identity, toying with the mysterious correspondent while privately unpacking her own psychosexual and emotional baggage.

And boy, there’s enough of that for an old-time transatlantic steamer crossing! Among the items tumbling out of the Hubbards’ cupboard: Jean might have breast cancer; her mother—given, à la Bridget Jones’, to pitch-perfect undermining remarks like “I really admire the way you completely ignore your appearance, Jeannie”—left her father after he had an affair two decades earlier. Dad’s had an aneurysm, so it’s time to hop a plane to New York, where we find Larry, a handsome lawyer from Jean’s professional past who might still be in love with her. Meanwhile, back in London, Mark and Jean’s daughter Victoria is vigorously pursuing her independence, and mysterious paternity issues are swirling around a peculiar young Frenchwoman who pops up at the dry cleaner.

If all this sounds soap-operatic—well, it kind of is, but the bubbles have heft as well as loft.

Except for her clumsy effort to integrate Sept. 11 into the narrative—and, as a sort of dramatic bonus, the 2003 blackout—Ms. Fonseca’s exploration of middle-aged displacement, both mental and physical, is intelligent, nuanced and immensely satisfying.

Early press about Attachment has centered on the facile question, “Is this based on real life?” Martin and Isabel, after all, spent some time in a Uruguayan coastal resort town, and everyone must wonder if two such fascinating specimens have cheated on each other. But to me the much more pertinent, if unfair, question is: “How does her writing stack up against his?” And the answer is: enviably well.

Alexandra Jacobs is editor at large at The Observer. She can be reached at ajacobs@observer.com.