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We are ushered into a feminine world on page 1 of David Plante’s DIFFICULT WOMEN (New York Review Books, $16.95), when the author meets Jean Rhys in a South Kensington hotel lounge decorated all in pink — pink paper on the walls, pink roses on the carpet. Rhys, who became a literary grande dame after the late-in-life success of her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, sits decomposing in a pink hat on a red sofa under a pink lampshade. “I’m dying,” she says, and asks Plante to run out for a bottle of sweet vermouth. By the end of the afternoon, they are both beyond blotto, and Plante has rescued Rhys out of the toilet into which she fell after he neglected to put the seat down.

The second subject of this “memoir of three” is Sonia Orwell, widow of George, who, according to Plante, would arrive at a dinner for four, count five bottles of wine, and send him out for two more. It never hurts to arm oneself against the vicissitudes of life. “There was with Sonia the sense that she knew beforehand everything that was going to happen, and there would be no great surprises; everything would be awful.” Orwell, surrounded by writers and artists, is a manipulative snob, and always lonely. Plante invites her to stay with him in Cortona, Italy; she huffs, puffs, and redecorates the house. The third subject, Germaine Greer, has her own house nearby, and drives Plante across Europe while nipping on a bottle of brandy. Later, she drives him from Tulsa to Santa Fe as he feeds her licorice. When they cross the Panhandle, she orders him to pop the champagne.

Photograph of Germaine Greer © Frank Herrmann/Camera Press/Redux

An American novelist in literary London, Plante was an eager-to-please young parvenu. Then he wrote this book. It was first published in 1983, when Rhys and Orwell were already dead. Greer refused to read it and seems not to have forgiven him. As recently as 2006 she wrote in the Guardian that “a writer who hangs the carcass of her invention around the necks of real people cannot expect them to rejoice in a burden that they can now never relinquish.” It is true that after you read Difficult Women you are likely to think of Germaine Greer as the person who once fed her cats a testicle (we aren’t told what kind) and stole Plante’s office chair. But you are equally likely to remember her as an excellent cook who mastered local dialects and could converse as knowledgeably about shock absorbers and roof tiles as about eighteenth-century women writers and female eunuchs.

Plante’s novels are anguished, cerebral affairs about the spiritual lives of working-class Catholics; Difficult Women will outlast them. It shows a remarkable gift for portraying talk, dress, and self-presentation, and for pacing a scene. The women never stop talking, perhaps because they never feel heard; occasionally they are reduced to shouting. In a coda, Plante categorizes their disparate attitudes about a range of matters — children, social justice, domesticity, and business sense:

Sonia’s lawyer asks if she hasn’t some friends in business who might have advised her in her dealings with the George Orwell Estate. She angrily replies, “Of course I don’t have business friends! Of course not!”

If the reportage isn’t exactly what we would call fair and balanced, it does contain moments of mad beauty, as when Rhys describes literature as a lake fed by “rivers” (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky) and “trickles” (herself). “All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake. It is very important. Nothing else is important.”

Still Life with Red Wine Bottles, by Bernhard Vogel. Courtesy the artist and Catto Gallery, London

The first reviews of Difficult Women concentrated on questions of accuracy and ethics. “Telling funny stories about your friends is a tricky business if you intend to go on having friends,” Mary-Kay Wilmers observed in the London Review of Books. Thirty years on, all that remains is a delicious sequence of character sketches, interrupted by the occasional self-interrogatory aside. (“I knew I felt guilt towards, not all women, but difficult women. . . . I had made them difficult.”) It is obvious enough that the book is a self-portrait of the artist as a young gay man drawn to outrageous female companionship. But all works of art are self-portraits of one kind or another. I suspect that Plante loved these women in his own way, and that his act of betrayal felt to him like tribute. He has the cold, killing passion of a lepidopterist, but in the end the book succeeds because the women are so horribly alive.

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