Isabel Fonseca’s new book, her second in 13 years, is a novel, Attachment, about a woman who suspects her husband of having an affair. This is perhaps not the wisest of career moves, considering that she is married to a novelist far better known, Martin Amis. Once the bad-boy star of British letters, he has become a fashionable target these days — both for his success and, more recently, for some of his political positions — and inevitably his wife has sustained a certain amount of collateral damage.
In some UK tabloids, she is probably doomed to be known forever as Isabel “Fun-seeker,” the bosomy American home wrecker who in 1994 busted up Amis’ first marriage and made him fire his longtime agent, the wife of his best friend, so that he could extort from his publisher more money to spend on cosmetic dentistry. That none of this is true, exactly, or that it’s a good deal more complicated than the headlines allow, almost goes without saying.
Fonseca and Amis, who live in London after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus in Uruguay, have two young daughters. They also see a lot of his two sons, now in their 20s, from his first marriage, and of Delilah Seale, 32, a daughter whom he didn’t even know he had until a few years ago. Their social world consists largely of other writers, including Will Self and Ian McEwan.
In this circle, Fonseca is less a tabloid harpy than the latter-day equivalent of Zuleika Dobson, the heroine of Max Beerbohm’s 1911 novel about a beautiful young woman who turns up at Oxford and makes all the undergrads suicidal with longing. Now 46, she is still turn-your-head attractive (the papers were not wrong about that part), and she is an heiress, sort of. Her maternal grandfather was Jacob Kaplan, who owned the Welch’s grape juice company. Her mother is American; her father, Gonzalo, was a Uruguayan artist; and she grew up in a house on West 11th Street in Manhattan that used to belong to Daniel Chester French, the sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial. Her brother Caio is a painter whose work hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 1984, after graduating from Barnard, she enrolled at Wadham College, Oxford, and both there and afterward in London, where she got a job with the Times Literary Supplement, she really did have a Dobson-like effect. She was a fixture at the Groucho Club, a fashionable nightspot for the London literati, and among her many admirers, to judge from contemporary accounts, were Clive James, Bill Buford, Salman Rushdie and the actor John Malkovich.
She actually worked, though. For the Literary Supplement, she created the NB department, a column of cultural commentary that persists to this day, and while on the staff there she also wrote Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, a history of the Gypsies, which she researched, traveling alone through Eastern Europe, for four years. At one point she lived for six weeks with an Albanian Gypsy family, the Dukas, where the rules of hospitality required the other women to wash her every morning.
Fonseca now makes light of her adventure. “I was never frightened for a minute,” she said recently about traveling on her own to Gypsy encampments. “There’s nothing easier than being a woman alone in the world. People are so protective. If anything, I was dying just to have a few minutes to myself.” The book, which was well-received when it came out in 1995, helped her reputation, making it harder to dismiss her as a literary bimbette and adventuress.