I was going to do Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear for my “name” selection, but I don’t know Jacqueline Winspear from Eve, and I do know Jenny Gardiner. Our sons were together on the high school academic team for three years, and I got my copy of Sleeping with Ward Cleaver at her very own book release party just last night. This is not Jenny’s first novel, but it is her first published one. (What is it with me and first novels?) Jenny got the contract through the American Title III contest sponsored by Dorchester Publishing and Romantic Times, and I was one of the friends who hustled online votes for her with my online quilting group.
Don’t let the Romantic Times reference trick you into thinking of this as a bodice-ripper. While Sleeping with Ward Cleaver is definitely of the “chick lit” genre, it is not what I would think of as a romance, though it is very much a love story. Claire and Jack Doolittle have been married long enough to have five kids from age 14 on down, and more than a lot of the magic has gone out of their marriage. Jack’s view of parenting is to set the standards for behavior high but to leave all enforcement duties to Claire. Jack’s view of housework is to leave everything to Claire; after all, how much time can her part-time job, one cat, one dog, one parrot, and five kids take? “Marital relations” have become perfunctory and are limited to Sunday night. Claire has come to view Jack as Ward Cleaver from “Leave It To Beaver” infamy.
As Claire is nearing the end of her rope, into her inbox pops an e-mail from the boyfriend who jilted her right before she met Jack. He claims to want only to know how her life has gone and whether she has forgiven him, but the progression of their e-mail conversation hints at underlying motives. Meanwhile, Jack has a new, young, female co-worker, Julia, who hangs on his every word and whose work relationship with Jack is making coworkers, as well as Claire, wonder what else might be going on. When Jack announces a business trip to Miami with Julia, Claire decides to leave the kids with Jack’s parents, follow Jack and Julia to Miami, and see for herself just what might be going on between them. What happens after that? Well, I'd spoil it for you if I told you.
Unfortunately, that description totally fails to convey that all this action (and what follows) is described in a boisterous, bawdy manner that is downright laugh-out-loud hilarious at times and somewhat tender misty-eyed poignant at others. It’s a very light read, though the deeper message comes through that marriages, like people, age and, also like people, some age better than others. Also, just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to make a marriage work, and rarely are the missteps due to just one of the partners.
Quality Rating: 10 out of 10. It’s not great literature, but it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s a good, fun, easy read, but one that makes you reflect a bit afterwards, especially if you’re at a stage of marriage similar to that portrayed here. The one where things are so different than they once were, and you find yourself wondering if this is all there is.
Audience Rating: M, more for age and life experience than anything else. Teenagers, even college-aged kids, will just not have the life experience to get this. And note that I did say “bawdy” above. You don’t want to be explaining some of the references here (especially the last line in the book, which is one of those downright, laugh-out-loud hilarious ones) to your kids.