THE INSEPARABLES, by Stuart Nadler. Little, Brown & Company, 339 pp., $27.
Three generations of brilliant but besieged women occupy the core of Stuart Nadler’s droll, warm and trenchantly observant comic novel, “The Inseparables.” Grandmother Henrietta Olyphant, who became notorious in the 1970s for writing a trashy, graphically illustrated bestseller about a sexually liberated woman, finds herself suddenly widowed and in financial crisis because of her late husband’s declining restaurant business. Her daughter Oona, an accomplished, hard-driving orthopedic surgeon, is in the throes of separation from her husband, Spencer, a corporate lawyer drifting through a marijuana-induced haze into a slacker’s lassitude while somehow retaining a razor-sharp focus on the needs of their 15-year-old daughter, Lydia.
As for Lydia, her own travails are, at once, the most difficult and most contemporary of all: One of her classmates at an exclusive boarding school managed to take nude photos of her on his cellphone, which have all gone viral. She’s been suspended, as has her lascivious suitor, who continues to harass and threaten her via text message — as do dozens of others who shame and ridicule her. Having a grandmother known for writing a soft-core pop phenomenon doesn’t help: “Most everyone [at Lydia’s school] assumed she had grown up in some deranged sexual den full of vibrators and leather chaps and whips. Or else that every family dinner ended with some in-depth discussion of Caligula’s exploits.”
None of which could be further from the truth, as the family matriarch has spent most of her life since the novel’s appearance trying to outrun its impact. (“The truth was Henrietta was long in the habit of denying her book’s existence,” Nadler writes.) But now that she needs the money, she’s reluctantly allowed the book to be republished — which isn’t going to prevent her from having to sell her suburban Boston home or from embarking on a peripatetic search through the region’s thrift shops and antique stores for all the things her late husband sold off to cover their debts, including a weather vane bearing personal significance to Henrietta.
As for Oona, her exasperation with Spencer combined with the overall family chaos has . . . well, as Spencer informs Lydia, “Your mother’s in love with our couples therapist,” about which to his surprise, Lydia already knows. “I don’t think ‘love’ is the right word,” she sagely tells her dad. And indeed, Oona finds fresh dissatisfaction in her fling: “For someone like Oona, tutored early on in the inherent power structures of sex — men asking, men demanding, men taking — and in the necessity of emotional consent, there was the sinking suspicion that she should have at least asked for a bed.”
The deadpan, rueful humor deployed in this passage along with its glowing insights into the mechanisms of desire are what sustain your attention throughout “The Inseparables,” which takes its title from Henrietta’s own sexy novel about female empowerment. It would be easy to describe Nadler’s narrative in such reductive terms as: “The bad things that happen when smart women take foolish chances with dysfunctional men.” But Nadler, the author of one previous novel, “Wise Men,” enhances his mastery over his subtle, complex comedy by showing tough-minded compassion toward even the creepiest of his characters — and that, hands down, would be Charlie Perlmutter, Lydia’s would-be-boyfriend-turned-tormentor.
And though the book’s plotting may feel a tad piled-on at the end, its generosity of spirit and its fascinating trio of women-in-crisis help make “The Inseparables” the smartest and most touching romantic comedy you won’t find at a multiplex movie theater this summer.