JANE DAVISON got her bachelor of arts degree from Smith College in 1955, along with her doomed fellow "striver and smiler" Sylvia Plath and about 350 others, most of whom had grown up "trying to be even more alike, rather then less" in privileged houses innocent of the scent of garlic. With their diplomas came a speech from Adlai Stevenson, who wished them godspeed in what he called their "primary task of making homes and whole human beings." In due course, he trusted, each of them would locate a likely specimen of "Western man" with whom to establish, populate and maintain a nest.
Their legacy, as Davison makes clear in her first book, The Fall of a Doll's House, would be the same "busy-ness, of a special and fragmenting sort," that had preoccupied women since World War II. A good part of this busy-ness, it was implicit, would have to do with houses, with "the kind of exterior, segregated existence that has dominated the expectations of most American women since 1900" (and plenty of women elsewhere too, since long before the Ibsen play to which Davison's title alludes.) This lively and thoughful book is an attack on the "single-family house, the word housewife, the building industry, a room of one's own, sisterhood, and home ownership as a creed.
Davison's style is generously anecdotal. Tiring, after half a decade in Manhattan of female roommates and "all those nylons, hanging like Spanish moss from drying racks," Davison finds her "Western Man" (a Northeasterner, actually) and follows him to Boston, where their children in time became "unrecognizable in their masks of high adolesence." Not for years does their mother begin to question the precept that "keeping house is a moral duty." Far from it: she develops such a flair for domestic self-sufficiency as to "sink in social status. Joshing with the guys at the hardware store, swapping tales of spackle and grout," in "bib overalls, turtleneck and a head kerchief," she wonders "What would my grandfather have thought?"
Not much, probably. Davison's grandmother and-mother, whose lives are here evoked with nostalgic restraint, weren't the sort to refer to their suburban family houses, as "homes," or to make an issue of the "increasingly solitary, diminishing splendor" with which they presided over their households. Their stories, and the author's own, are interwoven with impressive social history. It's clear that she's covered a lot of ground, and not just in libraries. Among many dozens of more official sources she draws on the thoughts of Erma Bombeck, Walter Gropius, Doris Lessing, Reinhold Niebuhr and the lady who sat next to her once on a cross-country Greyhound bus and offered her a recipe for something called "Watergate Pudding."
"When the home-as-object threatens to dominate its occupants," she reminds us, "they should remodel or move out at once." This advice might seem gratuitous to the 20 percent of Americans who already change addresses every year, often for reasons beyond their control, who are not so much "tyranized by real estate" as struggling to manufacture some semblance of the security their foremothers, so to speak, inherited. Still, Jane Davison makes good sense, with deft humor, in underscoring our need to find whatever new ways we can to hallow the ground we happen to stand on, or land on.
Davison is no more a snob nor a doctrinaire feminist than she is a Total Woman. Sisterhood, she confesses, "strikes me as a narrowing concept, implying loyalties only within a single generation of siblings." Her contemporaries -- "the last of the red-hot housewives," as she calls them, for whom "the chip on the shoulder became as chic an accessory as fashion boots and designer sheets," are en masse "a tiny bit embarrassing, glum reminders of the glory that was home." We should regard her, she tells us, as "a nice, friendly lady who learns from experience and tries to pass on nuggets of wisdom (like hot potatoes)." She wishes us what she and her family have found for themselves: "a home where the imagination may grow . . . shelter in some warm, glassed-in place, out of the wind."