ARE THEY a new breed, these thwarted, gifted and -- in the end -- strong women whose men tread the bounds of credibility in their ugliness and their uncomprehending cruelties? We have recently seen women like these from immensely talented writers: Mary Gordon (The Company of Women ) and Joyce Maynard (Baby Love ), to name a couple, are now joined by Lee Zacharias and Rita Kashner. The blazing, sweeping anger of Marilyn French's The Women's Room has been replaced by a more complex world where all women are not the same downtrodden slaves, where there is always the possibility if not the reality that an acceptable humane male will materialize. There is a sense of sharing with the reader, both male and female. Feminism is the foundation, but femininity is not grudged its moment in the sur. Choice is central though painful: the choice of lovers, of children, of a career.(The wrong choice of a husband seems almost inevitable but no longer crippling.)
After reading Bed Rest it's hard to contemplate lying on anything but 100 percent cotton sheets -- 300-thread count, of course. Bed, in fact, will never be quite the same again. Beth Clahr retreats to her king-size kingdom as the conflicts and tensions mount in her life. Finally, "I wasn't lying still in it anymore; it was my base of operations." She schemes to keep her husband off her freshly laundered sheets: "I'd come to consider the bed as my place, and Richard began to seem a kind of intruder."
Jane Gabriel, the central figure in Lessons retreats only into herself. Thwarted in her career, unhappy in marriage, she becomes a young woman who has skipped a generation, wearing double-knit dresses with high collars while her contemporaries march and protest in the jeans and Indian cotton of the '60s. Though both Beth and Jane suffer in marriage, they rejoice in music.
Beth is a New Jersey housewife with "five semesters of serious voice training in college. Three years of solo singing, until the age of twenty-one. Married now, two kids, twelve and seven. . . ." Her husband is a goodnatured, insensitive blob: "All Richard knew about me was what I told him. Messages by satellite. Reports from planet me." Aged 33, Beth learns that with time and the right training she could still have a career as a successful soloist.
At the same age Jane -- after 14 years of marriage -- has left behind her paranoid, repressive husband with his dildos and dirty magazines. She has made a recording and is headed -- maybe -- for success as a clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic orchestra. Success is central to both Beth and Jane, and music sustains them. Beth sings for her voice teacher: "Halfway into the piece I heard it come together. . . . Ah God, there it is, I thought in delight, and I opened it up, reaching for everything I had. Power, richness, clarity, carving out every note, evoking every phrase." As for Jane, she finds a good teacher in high school and knows "for the rest of my life I would do whatever I had to do to become a musician."
Oddly enough, neither author is totally convincing in her rendering of musical talent -- a technical flaw in these otherwise carefully crafted novels. We wonder how either heroine finds the time or emorional energy to excel and must take it on faith that Beth may one day sing at the Met. She rarely has time to practice, as the League of Women Voters, carpools and a fox costume for the school play tug at her. The conflict and the guilt mount until she takes to her bed to shut out the constant drumming in her head of jobs not done, obligations incurred. The split in her life cuts her off from both family and friends as it deepens in intensity. She tries to confide in her friend Jess, but "I hadn't told her the real thing. I hadn't told her about how the less I did for the children the more I feared for them. I hadn't told her about the murderous noise of my litany of safety for them. I hadn't told her about the silent bed and its silken threads, my bed where I was Bethie, and safe."
Jane has no children. She married Ben Gabriel on the rebound from a handsome college swimmer. She was infatuated with Kelly, but could not settle for the narrow life he offered. Her ambition would not be stilled: "The future which had always seemed so liquid, now rose like a continent from the gorge of space between us. Its shape was Walnut Grove, the university-owned trailer court. . . . I do not consent to be a victim. I do not consent to die. I chose not to marry Kelly." Compounding her problems -- she often does that -- Jane marries her divorced theory teacher "when I was eighteen and he forty, I . . . married him because he played Beethoven so beautifully for me," though he is unable to play in public. Jane's excellence as a performer threatens him.He calls her "my little girl," expects her to type eight hours a day to finance his child-support payments, loses various jobs and can't even keep his Volkswagen running. Poor Ben and poor Richard, the former an unappealing small-minded little rat and the latter a caricature of good natured clumsy manhood, a Jayne Mansfield of a husband. Even their attitudes toward sex invite scorn. For Richard it's a reward for being a good boy and winning the bread; for Ben it's the playing out of vaguely obscene fantasies with a Lolita flavor.
The husbands in these two novels are, put bluntly, a disgrace to their sex. They are irritants who must be shucked off if the women are to become whole. Both books are, however, strikingly devoid of rhetoric. Bed Rest indeed is infused with a most delightful self-mocking humor. The conflict between the sexes is presented by Kashner with a wry resignation that has lost the bleak anger and astonishment of early consciousness-raising. Jane's bitterness is leavened by her feisty sense of her own strength.
Lessons is the more ambitious work of fiction, though Bed Rest has an unselfconscious, poignant appeal. The handling of time in Lessons is sophisticated and successful. We follow Jane intimately for two decades from the high school band to the promise of the Philharmonic. The story builds in apparently random sequence but every flashback or memory fills in a part of the puzzle. Jane's Midwestern childhood in a drab Indiana steel town is drawn with infinite care. The brief portrait of her brother is loving and moving: Dick, married and deserted at 18, dead at 26, "knocked off a cat-walk into a vat of molten steel, and a public relations man drove out from Inland to tell his widow they were sorry -- it was most unfortunate." Guilt and rejection infuse Jane's relationship with her mother. "I had never wanted to be like her; I had never wanted to be left sitting around a kitchen table while the chairs emptied."
We spend only a few weeks with Beth, luxuriating in the fresh talcum powder and the line-dried sheets. We meet her array of friends, her children -- portrayed with fiendish accuracy, her almost-but-not-quite lover, her teachers. Her humor, guts and willingness to love won me over. Jane, on the other hand, defies sympathy, seems intent on self-dedeat. She is a fine clarinetist in spite of herself. She jumps off a cliff in the anguish of her love for Kelly and smashes her jaw. Later she is beaten up by a psychopath as she bar hops in an attempt to get back at her husband Ben. Somehow she recovers to play again. I wish Jane well and hope that the hint of romantic happiness that flickers through the last pages of the book will be realized, but, in the end, my heart belongs to Beth.
Lessons and Bed Rest are both brimming with life, accomplished in storytelling and style, totally different, yet with an astounding amount in common -- two first novels to read and to relish.