After 20 years of marriage, Frederick Stone's wife has left him. And, although his story is told exclusively from Frederick's point of view, most readers of "A Marriage Made in Woodstock" will wonder why she didn't pack her bags sooner.
Since he first met Chandra -- then called Lorraine -- at Woodstock, Frederick has set up a successful accounting firm and raised self-satisfaction to an art form. He prides himself on being the first person awake on his cul-de-sac in Portland, Maine, a man who knows the best razor (the Gillette Sensor, according to Consumer Reports) and the best coffee beans (his own blend of beans from Colombia and the Ivory Coast). He charts his receding hairline on his computer but has trouble remembering the names, let alone the faces, of his nieces and nephews.
Chandra teaches psychology seminars and leads protest marches at the drop of the hat. She is passionate, idealistic and committed -- not that different from the young woman Frederick met at Woodstock, except she now has a name that means "moonlike" in Sanskrit.
It is Cathie Pelletier's gift to take a stock situation and confound one's expectations. In "The Bubble Reputation," a woman mourning the death of her lover is not saved by a new love. Instead, she retreats to a tent in the back yard, keeping her crazy family at bay with a BB gun. "A Marriage Made at Woodstock" takes similar, unexpected turns as Frederick copes with his broken marriage.
The prose has a witty, knowing gloss, whether it's in the local IGA, where the other shoppers flock to Frederick for his advice on produce and brand names, or at the China Boat, a bar where Frederick and older brother Herbert, also divorced, meet to commiserate.
The book's best scene belongs to Herbert, a veterinarian. The two brothers have gone to the dry cleaners together where, to Frederick's amazement, Herbert wants to sit in the car and wait for the one-hour service promised. Herbert confides that it's the best time to work on his novel, about a veterinarian-Vietnam veteran named Kenny Perkins.
"He's a vet vet?" Herbert smiled, nodded vigorously.
"That's his nickname at the clinic," he confessed. "And get this. He drives a Corvette! . . . Try to imagine Ernest Hemingway as an animal-rights activist," Herbert whispered, apparently fearing that someone would steal his idea, "and you've pretty much nailed Kenny Perkins, D.V.M."
(Albert Brooks, in the early days of "Saturday Night Live," once imagined a sitcom about a similar "vet vet," but not even Mr. Brooks carried it to the extremes described by Herbert, who sees his creation as a James Herriot-like character with post-traumatic stress disorder.)
Ms. Pelletier's work is filled with moments like this, hilarious and true. A high-school history teacher serves bread via Conestoga wagon, which barrels down the dinner table. A wealthy married woman, in hot pursuit of Frederick, invites him to a luncheon where the help treats him as a romantic rival, sneering at his taste in food. Meanwhile, Frederick mopes his way through the summer, growing a ponytail and listening to a Woodstock-era album. No, not by Jimi Hendrix, but by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.
Cathie Pelletier's rhythm can be as quirky and offbeat as her characters. Some things simply didn't work for me, such as Frederick's internal dialogues with Mr. Bator, his high school biology teacher. Also, although it is perfectly in character for Frederick to love annoying puns, they're still annoying. ("He was going to wax philosophical and Frederick knew it. He also knew Herbert Stone didn't just wax. He buffed and polished.")
But these are quibbles, probably not shared by Ms. Pelletier's fans. And if Chandra never misses Frederick, the reader might. He does grow on one as he grows that ponytail.
Title: "A Marriage Made in Woodstock"
Author: Cathie Pelletier
Length, price: 288 pages, $22