The Woman and the Men is a modern psychological novel of manners. Its main characters are two married couples in their forties. The story is set in Warsaw in 2003 to 2004, but opens with a short flashback set in 1994. A childless couple, a doctor called Klara and an architect called Jacek, are going through a crisis. Jacek is suffering from depression because of some failures at work, and his neglected wife starts up an affair with a younger man, the charming Julian. Klara and Jacek are typical representatives of the liberal middle class. In turn the other couple, Joanna and Marek, represent the Catholic conservative classes. They have three children and are planning to have more. She is a housewife and he is so consumed by his job that he is hardly ever at home. This marriage too is facing a tough test. Ultimately Marek leaves his wife and three children to take up with a sexy young dentist. Jacek and Klara’s marriage survives. She leaves her young lover, he recovers from his depression and makes up with his wife. In this moral, fairly stereotypical tale Gretkowska includes a lot of digressive material that diagnoses the state of the modern Polish family. She describes modern morality within relationships between men and women, casts light on all sorts of social and cultural factors that determine the heroes’ life-changing decisions and behaviour and creates in-depth portraits of her characters. The Woman and the Men is a successful, amusing and intelligent novel.
- Dariusz Nowacki
At the Ikea parking lot Joanna crammed in the bits and pieces that were spilling out of the boot, candles and napkins.
“Let’s go now, the baby’ll wake up.” She got in next to Marek who was examining the car computer screen.
“You haven’t shut it properly,” he said, checking the warning light. “Do up the seat belts, I’ll do it.” He wrapped himself in his long navy blue coat as he hopped across the snowy mud. He slammed the Laguna’s boot shut and stuck back a sticker with a Christian fish sign above the registration plate that was coming off.
“It’d be worthible changing the fish, gold against black is a bit dodgy…” Before getting in he checked the baby carrier was secure with Maciuś asleep in it on the back seat and kissed him on the nose.
“It would be worthible,” said Joanna, opening the door for him. They mispronounced words when they were happy. They swapped their children’s catchphrases, imitating their carefree manner.
The shopping was done, they had found a stylish nappy changing bed for the baby and ordered a children’s chest of drawers to be delivered for the older ones. On the way to the check-out they had picked up some New Year’s Eve decorations.
“Maybe we should keep the fish and buy a new car?” said Marek, looking in the mirror to see if he’d made an impression on Joanna. He loved giving them surprises, buying the children new computer games or treating them to their dream clothes on expeditions to the shopping centres. Their cries of joy were in his honour too. Joanna was pleased with the presents and the holidays in Spain bought on the off chance the day before, but she always had reservations: “You could have asked me – so what if you were sure? Yes, I’m happy, but…”. That “but” raised her above his generosity. And it meant: You’ve got everything, but not enough.” Joanna defended her independence with spiteful remarks, scoring off Marek’s ak points.
“I suppose you’ve already put down a deposit. Let me guess… a Lexus?”
“A Lexus? Costs a bomb for God knows what. Do you like the Lexus?”
“They advertise it by saying the driver’s seat gives you a massage.”
“If you have sex with it… I know some suckers who’d ruin themselves running up credit for a Sexus.”
“I don’t. We only make love once a fortnight, duckie.” There was no reproach in that remark, but rather a discreetly implied warning.
“Really?” said Marek, who was busy overtaking.
“Less often,” she admitted after some thought. “So what did you buy?”
“Nothing,” he said, stroking her arm. “Don’t get worked up.”
“I was thinking of something bigger… an off-roader,” he suggested.
“Are we moving to the moon?” A change of car usually meant a change in their life. She regarded buying a new one as a male form of moulting.
“The roads are worse and worse and they won’t get any better, darling, the only holes the tax money blocks up are in the budget.”
“How do you know?”
“You just know that sort of thing… from a mate at my old department. What would you say to something more sporty?” He was testing her to see how much he could let himself spend. Forget about family obligations.
“Are the kids and I supposed to run after you in my pedal car?”
“You’ve said you’re happy with your car.”
“Let’s sell both of them and get a Megane.”
“What do we need two identical cars for, Joasia?”
“Safe for the children. A Megane and a mini-van,” she started to negotiate, not about the model of car but for herself. For how much advantage she could gain by bargaining.
“I’m not going to drive to work in a chamber pot. I’m sorry, but you don’t know the facts, you’ve already chosen one disaster…” He couldn’t understand why he had given in to her when they bought the Laguna. In the three-year-old car everything was broken, from the shock absorbers and the battery to the door locks. By charming the guys in charge at the service station Joanna had wheedled a discount for fixing the gearbox. Their stares had hung on her bust like shining medals. They almost blushed as they admired her legs in a tight mini skirt, as if they were sexily muscular extensions of her labia. Didn’t he appreciate his wife? He could compare her with the old Joanna, lighter, slimmer, with no puffiness in the morning. He still loved her, and prided himself on loving her maturity and maternal beauty even more.
“I don’t know anything about cars? So why are you asking me?” She guessed it was about another loan.
They hadn’t yet paid off the house bought in the days of the right-wing run of luck when Marek was one of the Prime Minister’s youngest advisers. Just before losing the elections his colleagues had got out of the government, luring him into the private Catholic television channel KaTel. Marek felt safe. Once upon a time people lost their jobs, now they couldn’t get one. He had his job and a guarantee for it – colleagues switching from one company to another. They had experience instead of ideals. In state companies ideals brought losses that could be patched up from the budget, but they led private ones to bankruptcy. The private television channel they managed was less and less visible, despite buying up their competitors’ best programmes. The increasing gaps in transmission were filled with musical oases, and a screen showing the channel’s logo, a blue star. The channel was fading out before the viewers’ very eyes. Joanna was afraid one day there would be nothing left but a falling star and an unemployed Marek.
“A bigger car would be useful, but as for me, I’d like to open a business…” After Michaś was born she has tried to run a foreign language school. She hadn’t foreseen the strong competition and the fact that children left with a nanny get sick with cyclical sore throats, allergies and pining for their mother.
“What? What for? You don’t have time.” Marek braked too hard.
“I do now, I know how to go about it without leaving Maciuś. It’d be the minimum, in case… you wanted to look for a better job,” she suggested the expected disaster in a diplomatic way.
“We’ve got some savings.”
“Let’s leave the car, better tell me what’s happening for New Year’s Eve?”
“There’ll be ten people including us, and Klara’s coming.”
“They were supposed to be in the mountains.”
“Jacek’s not feeling well.”
“Is she coming on her own? Would you go out to play if I was ill?”
“Jacek isn’t ill, he’s just not feeling well. He’s got depression and prefers to be alone.”
“She drove him to it, if you ask me,” he said gleefully.
“I told you, acupuncture does harm, the body defends itself. I’ve seen it – she was always stabbing him, for coughs and colds.”
“You don’t like her.”
“I like her very much, but not her needles. Torture never helps anyone. Do you know where acupuncture comes from, didn’t she tell you? The Chinese used to torture prisoners with it. Not bad, eh? Doctor Mengele wouldn’t be ashamed of that.”
“Don’t compare her with the Nazis. I could say a thing or two about your friends too…”
Awoken by the loud conversation, Maciuś began to cry.
“That they’re thick as thieves,” she said disdainfully. “Stop, I’ve got to feed him.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones