It’s something of a paradox, but the thing that first intrigued me about Domestic Violets—its cover—is the one thing I’d change after reading it. I mean, look at that thing: it’s bright, it’s simple, it has commercial fiction written all over it. It suggests a lighthearted rom-com full of domestic friction. When I read it I was looking for something light, the literary equivalent of a Paul Rudd movie. Which is what Harper Collins wanted me to think I was getting.
However, like the best romantic comedies, Matthew Norman’s debut novel has a lot going on under the surface, so much that its cover actually does it a disservice. This is more than just a fluffy piece of entertainment. Domestic Violets is smart and insightful, and paints a wonderfully muddy picture of love and passion in the 21st century.
This is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.
The story centers around Tom Violet, the son of a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, and copywriter for a company that cannot be explained in less than a paragraph. Tom’s married to a smart, capable woman with whom he has a seven year old daughter. He is woefully unfulfilled at work, and as the story begins he realizes he isn’t any happier at home, either.
Under the soul-crushing weight of his father’s accomplishments, Tom’s inability to publish his own novel, and the fact that he hasn’t been able to get “little Tom” to rise to the occasion in months, Tom finds solace by flirting with the 23-year-old junior copywriter, Katie.
Tom’s hit a point where he wants to take charge of his life. Can he step out from his father’s shadow? Can he say “fuck it” and abandon his 9-5? Does he give up on his family and turn to the only person who seems to get him (if she’ll even have him, that is)?
At its core, Domestic Violets wants to make you laugh while opening your eyes to the harsh realities of love and marriage and careers in a world that makes giving up so easy. Life may, in fact, be more complicated now than it has ever been, and all of that starts at home. Whether it’s a new relationship, a new marriage, an old marriage, or a couple long divorced, the way in which our relationships work is drastically different than it was even thirty years ago. Temptation lies around every corner, and we now live in a time when giving into that temptation doesn’t necessarily have the drastic social ramifications it once did.
We’re all in search of true happiness, and it never seems like we’re satisfied with what we have. Is the grass greener? Is there any way to know other than going for broke?
Tom Violet is that self-deprecating wise-ass you see all the time in this kind of book, but he’s the epitome of the archetype. He’s funny and incisive, but his fatal flaws ground him. He’s real. He makes mistakes. But you understand him, perhaps even pull for him. He’s far from perfect, and neither is the world around him, and he will have you laughing out loud as he lampoons both.
The whole reason I discovered (and read) Domestic Violets is because it was recommended to me by fans of both Jonathan Tropper and Jess Walter. I instantly got the Tropper comparison–with its confused but quick-witted thirty-something loser protagonist–but Domestic Violets is orders of magnitude better than How to Talk to a Widower or One Last Thing Before I Go (This is Where I Leave You, Tropper’s strongest novel, comes close). Norman skews much closer to Walter, or perhaps even Nick Hornby, who I consider the absolute masters of the confused thirty-something-male genre. But with a few more Domestic Violets’ up his sleeve, Norman should have no trouble standing shoulder to shoulder with genre’s heavyweights.
This is far from “dude lit.” One glance at the Goodreads reviews and you’ll realize that 90% of the 5-star reviews for this book come from women. This is an entertaining, funny, and thoughtful look at the psyche of the thirty-something male, with all the successes and failures that come as a result of it.