Expensive Habits

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

As the story opens, Margaret Flood, a well-known author in her mid-forties, has learned that she has a serious heart condition. Frightened, yet defiant, she searches for ways to cope with this sudden intrusion of her mortality. Almost immediately she begins to review her life and her work, and how each has affected the other. Shifting to the past (during the McCarthy era), the story tells how Margaret’s career was launched. From the beginning, she was willing to alter the truth to please and entertain others. She exploited her relationships, including her first marriage to a young physician, with no thought given to the real compromises she was making. It is one of the book’s ironies that Margaret turns to this ex-husband, whom she maligned, to save her life. Always a great manipulator, she offers to revise her story of their marriage in exchange for his help.

Maureen Howard makes the reader work to uncover Margaret’s complexities. She shifts between the first and third persons and the past and present tenses. The lives of those from Margaret’s past and present are gradually fleshed out and slowly intertwined until they meet in an unexpected tragedy. The narrative then takes a sharp turn but develops an even deeper meaning.

Margaret’s search for a way to make amends for her past mistakes reveals much about human nature. She has traded her private life and personal relationships for glamour and public renown; she has all the trappings of success but finds herself quite solitary when she faces her crisis. Margaret, however, is not the only character in the novel who has made choices for which a high price must be paid. Howard lays bare the habits of self-deception and shows how easily, carelessly, and rapidly lives can be wasted.