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The Beautiful Wife

by Leon Rooke

In his prolific career as a writer, Leon Rooke has frequently seemed to be having far too good a time. The same suspicion strikes the reader of The Beautiful Wife. The novel begins as Vira and her daughter ViVa, a stressed-out Immigration and Refugee Board officer, head to the Dominican Republic. Air turbulence results in their flight’s diversion to the Philippines. The geographical displacement is disconcerting. So is the fact that the plane’s captain once starred in a children’s show about sock puppets. Nevertheless, before the first night is out, ViVa is in love.

Meanwhile the fictive author of this increasingly imbricated tale is running up huge bills with a literary research agency mysteriously connected to his own beautiful estranged wife. His researcher not only supplies him with information on the legendary U.S-supported Marcos regime but flies to Manila where she becomes engaged to a Filipino businessman, who is one of the novel’s characters.

Authorial footnotes abound. Characters proliferate dizzily: Vira’s dead but undeparted husband; ViVa’s slumlord brother in Winnipeg; his former tenant, a Filipina named Marchusa, who disappeared while seeking protected-person status; the handsome married man who seduces ViVa; the “shoe woman” Imelda and her late husband; and any number of beautiful wives.

Rooke’s storytelling is enormously entertaining and the roller-coaster plot is surprisingly involving, propelled by such unknowns as the perpetrators of Marchusa’s murder (for the fabulous “Vatican shoes”?) and the true identity of the book’s high-flying researcher. Like much of Rooke’s fiction, the narrative seems to be built out of endless attenuating digressions, yet he shows great authorial control as again and again the story loops back to the Marcos regime as an extravagant symbol of human greed and venality, and to men and women’s enduring hopes of finding love.