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After four years of marriage, Jordan believes that he and his beloved Italian wife, Isabella, have found their happy ending. True, he’s not exactly winning over Hollywood with his screenplays, and to make ends meet he’s had to take a job teaching writing, but he’s certain his big break is just around the corner. So when Isabella suddenly leaves him and returns to her native Rome, Jordan refuses to accept that their marriage is over. Raised on romantic comedies and fed a steady diet of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, Jordan has always believed that there is a simple formula for love–and it follows the rhythm of the classic romantic comedy.
Seizing on Isabella’s jealous nature, Jordan decides that in order to get her back, he must date another woman. But since he can’t imagine actually dating anyone else, he makes someone up. Her name is Naomi, and she’s based on a very attractive, very French former student of Jordan’s. To make their pretend relationship believable, Jordan “goes out” with Naomi in his imagination–providing her with dialogue, fleshing out her personality, even dressing her. All is going swimmingly–and the ruse seems to be working on Isabella–when Jordan realizes that Naomi has taken on a life of her own. She shows up everywhere, though only he can see her, and she seems to have a muselike agenda for the bewildered writer. Strangely, the phantom Naomi seems to provide the inspiration that Jordan’s screenwriting has been missing for so long.
But be careful what you wish for. Just when it looks as if Isabella may consider coming back, life with Naomi becomes even more bizarrely complicated, and soon Jordan is desperate to make her disappear. He’s learning the hard way that once Pandora’s box is opened, it’s a bitch to close.
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BILLY MERNIT, author of Writing the Romantic Comedy, is an expatriate New Yorker who currently resides in Venice, California. This is his first novel.
Visit the author at www.billymernit.com.
A scene or sequence that identifies "what's wrong with this picture" in a protagonist's status quo; in romantic comedy, it implies that what's missing in the protagonist's life is likely to be fulfilled by a potential mate.
On my third night alone since Isabella left, our home feels so haunted that I can't stand to stay inside, so I bolt through the garden gate and go stalking the empty street, crazed and aimless, only to realize I'm also keyless--I've locked myself out.
Even as I curse I have to laugh. Nothing is the way I want it to be, so it's only perversely logical that I'm forced to return to our place to stomp around the garden, peering helplessly at the barred windows. Such nice bars, too, with their hip, zigzaggy shape, befitting this perfect little Venice Beach apartment, a sweet one-unit bungalow, its only drawback (formerly an asset) being that you can't break in.
And such a beautiful night! The kind of beauty you only get when you're desolate, when it's all gone wrong. Everything painfully clear--indifferent stars twinkling through the dark branches swaying in the wind, a rainbow-ringed silver moon for me to howl at. The extra key isn't hidden where it's supposed to be, in the dirt of the potted olive tree by the back steps. I should rustle up a pickaxe, a battering ram. Instead I stand staring at the door, wondering: Did romantic comedies ruin me, or was I born a sucker for such myths?
I could blame Cary Grant, him and a whole seductive slew of movies I saw in my youth, which imprinted me with a formula for how it's supposed to go. I could blame my parents, sixty-somethings, who on the afternoon of the forty-seventh anniversary of their love-at-first-sight-ignited marriage were found rolling around on a couch, giggling and making out. No matter. Either way, I'm warped. I'm a writer who writes romantic comedy, a cinema studies teacher who teaches it, and I have so much faith in the standard beats of the successful courtship story that being left by the love of my life has me totally discombobulated.
Those beats weren't cooked up in some mad movie scientist's lab--it's a codified structure that replicates what happens when people fall in love in so-called real life: Setup (dueling personal histories) is followed by a Cute Meet (sparks fly) and a Complication (romance mucks up everything else that's going on). Further on comes the Hook (the sex is good). Then this thing that could be love gets tested, there's a Swivel, or turning point before a big commitment is made, and then one or both of the lovers hits that Dark Moment where they seriously consider bailing. But inevitably they have a clinch-and-kiss Resolution, and the audience leaves the theater with warm and fuzzy feelings, or merely feeling horny.
Well, we had all that, me and Isabella. After four years of marriage I thought we were living the reasonably happy ending. So the only way I can make sense of her leaving now is to rethink the structure of our story. I thought we were in Resolution, our Dark Moment having been back before the wedding when she had second thoughts about living here in Los Angeles, but that wasn't it, no, we must've been in a prolonged Swivel, questioning our decision. Now we're in a real Dark Moment--the crisis/climax preceding the finale, where she'll realize she was meant to be with me all along and the marriage is worth saving. So what I've got to figure out is how to move from sixth beat to seventh, from boy loses girl to gets. Not a simple task when your wife has already left the country.
First, though, I really ought to find that key.
Isabella used it last, having locked herself out a few months ago, and when she said she'd found a good place for it, I forgot to ask her where. I'm tempted to call her in Rome, where it's morning, except being the last person in Los Angeles who doesn't own a cell phone, I'd have to be inside to do this, inside the home that's so horribly silent and empty precisely because Isabella is on the other side of the world.
I walk to Joe's, the one neighborhood place still open this late on a weeknight, get my vodka and tonic and claim a corner of the bar. The new waitress I like with the round, kindly face sits a few stools down, done with her shift, blowing on a bowl of soup.
"So who had the affair?" she wants to know.
"Neither of us," I tell her. "It wasn't about that. Isabella was loathing Los Angeles. She didn't like the rest of America much, either. She missed Italy and her family, and she couldn't get her career restarted over here, and then, there's, you know . . ." A cavernous hole to step over, where the bad feelings live, born of my part in all this: how my struggle to find screenwriting work had made me cranky and only made her feel more insecure, and . . . "The usual stuff you run up against in any relationship," I say. "It all finally got to her, and . . . she left."
"Did she take the dog?"
I nod. The waitress tactfully sips her soup. I know what she's thinking, but still, there's a closet full of clothes and everything else Isabella's left behind. To look at the mess, you'd think she just went round the corner to get cigarette papers. And isn't mercurial the very definition of her nature? Oh, hope! Hope is the thing that does you in. But what's the thing that will bring Isabella back?
The waitress sighs. "She's so beautiful, your wife."
Isabella on the beach, pale cheeks reddened by the sun, windblown bangs in her brown Modigliani eyes, squinting at the small group of people standing on the bluff above her. After every gallery she'd approached in town had rejected her work, she'd invited her friends here to face the ocean, watching her use a stick as a brush, drawing in the wet sand only yards from the water's edge, an improvised series stretching down the beach: minotaur, mermaid, a child's face made of stars. Isabella called this self-curated exhibit "Non Esiste," her tribute to all the work, made by human hands or by nature, that didn't exist in the eyes of the professional art world. I knew she thought she was the one who didn't exist, the invisible foreigner in an insensitive city. Later, when the rest of the group was gone, I sat with her watching the tide splash up over an angel and recede, erasing the lines of its wings.
"Bella Isabella," I say, agreeing with the waitress. "And still my wife. It's only a separation."
"Maybe you should go to Italy."
Don't even think about it, she'd said, when I was thinking of nothing else. When I threatened to fly over there, Isabella claimed she'd leave town to avoid me, the point being . . . "She needs some time alone."
The waitress nods while I think, How much time? The longer she's gone, the scarier this gets. It's scary enough already. I have a sense of how the waitress sees me: I'm the teacher-sometimes-writer from around the corner who's got the gorgeous Italian artist wife and the fabulous dog. If Isabella steps out of the frame, who really is that guy left in the picture?
"You think she might see other people?" she asks.
"I hope not."
She looks down the bar, and I follow her gaze to where a svelte dark-haired woman in black velvet sits paying her bill. "Maybe you should," says the waitress.
"Date someone. If you want to get her back. If she's the jealous kind . . ."
The night we came home from the beach after "Non Esiste" was worse than bad opera. Isabella lit into me about a buxom blond friend of a friend who'd come to the show, someone I'd talked to for a few minutes.
"I'm surprised you saw anything I did, you were so busy staring at her. That's what you like, eh, those big American breasts!"
"You're being ridiculous."
"I'm ridiculous? You were the bavoso, like a dog with his tongue out!"
When Isabella loses it, her decibel level gets high enough to break glass, which was what I did then, finally, in an attempt to out-mad the madwoman. Figuring the only way to shut her down was to be more crazed than she was, I rammed my fist into a framed painting on the wall. And this did terminate my wife's hysteria, turning it to concern at the sight of my bloody knuckle and cut thumb, the tiny glass shards she picked out of my pants cuffs, and then, huddling with me on the bathroom floor, she erupted in gales of laughter, throwing her arms around my neck, apologizing for her accusations, and predictably we ended up making love with a ferocity that had been missing for a while, so . . .
"The jealous kind? Yeah," I say. "You could say that."
The brunette down the bar glances at me, appraises me quickly, then looks away. She's pretty, but wounded as I am, the prospect of even attempting to get close to another living, breathing female human being frightens and exhausts me. All that time and energy invested in trying to fit together two disparate psychologies, when I'll only end up confronting my newly defined shortcomings? I wasn't even able to muster the semblance of a smile when she looked my way, but let's just imagine, against all odds, I got lucky. My place? Well, actually I'm locked out of my apartment because my runaway wife misplaced the extra key, and I'm only interested in a quick fling to make her jealous, anyway, so . . . how about yours?
"Thing is, I'm not good dating material," I tell the waitress, and ask for my check.
Air. I hit the pavement, Abbot Kinney Boulevard all but deserted, the full moon looming larger now in the sky, wind rocking the palm-tree tops. It's the time of night I'd usually be out walking Maxi. I remember my last glimpse of the old mutt, in his carrier case at the airport as an attendant wheeled it away: his black-tipped nose poking out between the bars, one front paw rhythmically tapping at the door with the persistence of a ...
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Book Description Crown, 2008. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0307395375
Book Description Crown, 2008. Hardcover. Condition: New. 1. Seller Inventory # DADAX0307395375
Book Description Crown, 2008. Hardcover. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P110307395375