JULIA MARKUS WRITES about the mysterious and redeeming ways that love works in families otherwise divided by their values and ways of living. In her impressive novel Uncle she explored the relationship between a solitary man and his estranged niece. In American Rose the central relationship is again between an older man and a young woman, father and daughter Raymond and Rose Addis. But while Uncle is a tightly constructed, unswerving look at a small group of characters, American Rose has a wider scope, portraying three generations. It is more diffuse and uneven in quality as it joins the richly layered Addis family history to the almost obligatory contemporary story of a woman's search for success, self-understanding and growth.
The Addises are a Jersey City family, wealthy between the World Wars, less successful but comfortable as Rose grows up. Markus delineates the characters in the family by depicting their daily lives, the decisions and actions connected to jobs, household arrangements, illness, family relations. The drama is the drama of ordinary living -- marriages, heart attacks, conflicts between parents and children. These shared events bind people together with a common background, if not a common perspective, and give each a stake and influence on the others' lives.
The portraits of Rose's forebears ar vivid and affecting. Etta, her grandmother, if "one of nature's aristocrats," a strong-willed woman who shapes her home and tries to shape her family in her image of right behavior and good taste. Raymond is equally strong-willed in an almost proudly negative-way. "He sees that life wears a smirk. He imitates it. . . . He develops his concept of the shmegegge. Any jerk who glides aglong blithely on the top of things. How he loves, with his tone, to crack thin ice." Although Rose is his favorite, he refuses to trust in her luck, beauty, or talent. He cuts down her ambitions, growing more difficult as illness weakens and embitters him. He fears Rose will break down like his sister Helen, a gifted pianist who failed to cope with a concert career or marriage and spends her life nearly catatonic in a mental institution.
Helen is one proof of life's tricks, the way hopes die and expectations alter with time. Markus describes her in youth, lovely and full of promise. Seeing her years later through Rose's eyes, an old woman with "a bloated face, and white hairs on her chin," is a shock that conveys the magnitude of loss and pain possible in the world. None of the characters is cheerfully optimistic; yet they are survivors, and the picture of Helen is easier to bear for the one of Etta in her bright, tasteful apartment refusing the decay and disorder possible in old age.
Rose's story grows out of these explorations of her family's character and past. Despite her father's discouraging, she finds success: She is an applauded novelist, with a loving husband, and an attractive lover. Yet still she is dissatisfied. At the end of the book she enters analysis, partly to face impending middle age.
Although Markus continues to develop all the characters and to maintain their strong connections, as the story centers on Rose, it loses its sharpness of vision. The language changes when it describes her, more obvious or summary, and less revealing: "She had her mother's iron will and her father's brains. A streak of melancholy ran through her like a pushing blue vein." Rose's husband remains a shadowy figure, admirable for the support he gives her work, but banished to Europe or Boston at critical moments. Her lover has cute and sexy, or sometimes painful, conversations with her, without taking on much life. These are, perhaps, minor characters, but they are major people in Rose's life, and Rose's life, the title suggests, is the point of the book.
The portrayal of Rose is a significant weakness. Her problems lack the resonance to sustain the book. They have become the commonplace concerns of women in fiction: "I want to know myself. To be myself. To stand for myself. I want more." If is one thing to sympathize with such statements as personal goals, and another to find them sufficient explanation for a work of art. Rose seems to have everything; why is it not enough? Some of the explanation lies in her father's failure to communicate his love or approval, but their relationship remains static, with too little change in tone or conception to help the book grow. Partly because of the prose style in American Rose -- brief, simple sentences -- the examination of Rose's life seems to remain superficial.
As Uncle and parts of this book show clearly, Markus can write with beauty and depth. She understands the longings and disappointments of different generations and sensitively depicts the past. Yet Rose is trying to break with her past. "I cannot fall back on traditional values . . . all that nostalgia about roots," she writes to her analyst. "All that guilt. My heart used to be in shackles." This ambivalence in her life also seems to affect the balance and direction of the book. It is ironic that Rose should deny the past that gives richness to her story. She may feel "there was only one place and one time, here and now," but that present contains and carries the sum of every dinner in Jersey City, of Raymond's valiant bitterness, Helen's failed dream, or Etta's good taste. Without these, Rose would be impoverished. Without these, American Rose would be only another predictable novel about a moderan woman approaching 40, in analysis, and wanting more.