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In 1975, the stunning Barbara Norris, then 26, met Norman Mailer, the controversial 52-year-old leonine man of letters. A divorcee with a young son, she was teaching art in a small Arkansas town. She had studied writing with Mailer's World War II buddy, Francis Gwaltney, and she had already had her brush with fame while dating the state's governor, Bill Clinton.
It seems nearly everyone thought she was out of her depth when she encouraged Mailer's attentions. For his part, Mailer found her beauty breathtaking, and he encouraged her to resume an aborted modeling career by braving a move to Manhattan. In no time at all Barbara Norris became Norris Church (the last name a Mailer invention), and had some success modeling, painting and writing. Improbably, she became a chum of Mailer's protective mother and took her suitor's Candide-like accounts of his peripatetic life in stride.
Not only did Mailer have seven children by five wives, but he was living with a mistress and trying to break off yet another affair with a persistent lover who refused to go away. Yet his detailed accounts of his menagerie did not put off his new love. She accepted his claim that he wanted to try monogamy again -- even his declaration that he wanted, for the first time, to remain faithful to a woman. And after five years of living together, they married.
All went well -- give or take one or two philanderings -- for seven years or so, and then Mailer resumed a cross-country binge of love affairs, many of them with women older and less attractive than Norris. Why? Church never manages to fathom her wayward husband's motivations. This lapse is not the only disappointment in her tantalizing memoir. While she is brutally honest about her own affairs and her raging battles with Mailer, she reveals precious little about his writing life, or -- most surprisingly -- his reaction to his mother's death, even though Fanny Mailer by all accounts was her son's mainstay in an otherwise chaotic and kaleidoscopic whirl of a life.
Nevertheless, Church is convincing about her reasons for remaining with a deeply selfish but also mightily generous man. She loved the parties and the surprising warmth of loving family members who -- even given a few contretemps -- got along well and were mutually supportive. And her accounts of her own terrifying battles with cancer (she was declared terminal several times) and of Mailer's stoical approach to his own declining years make this a memoir about more than literary fame and celebrity culture. There is much to learn here about how to confront the consequences of betrayal and the consciousness of one's own mortality.
Carl Rollyson is the author of "Norman Mailer: The Last Romantic."