THE TROUBLE with this first novel, which in so many other respects is intelligent and appealing, is that its parts are interchangeable with those of countless other books being written these days by countless other young American women. Theirs is the first generation to find that the new assertive feminism and self-awareness, on which they've cut their teeth, is often in conflict with the terrors and frustrations necessary to accommodation with a difficult and dangerous world. It is an experience that has had a deep effect on their fiction, with strikingly similar results.
Their chief influences are not, as one might expect, such older writers as Kate Millett, Marilyn French and Marge Piercy, though certainly strains from these militant feminists can be found in their work. Rather, the feminism that surfaces in their fiction has a more subtle and ambiguous nature. They have cut their eye teeth on the stories and novels of Mary Gordon and Ann Beattie, who are scarcely older than they are but who early in their careers became charismatic figures.
In Gordon's novels, young women are wrested, at once voluntarily and reluctantly, from the rigid but orderly and comforting worlds in which they grew up; the challenge confronting them is to shake off the restrictive aspects of their upbringing and to become self-reliant, independent individuals, yet somehow to retain the values that were instilled in them as girls. In Beattie's fiction, a principal subject is the tensions between middle-class young men and women who have come through the upheavals of the Sixties and are now trying to make sense of them in their own lives; the sexual freedom of women, the easy availability of drugs and alcohol, the evanescence of "relationships"--all of these are givens, yet the people who inhabit this brave new world are oddly, vaguely but emphatically ill at ease within it.
Crossroads fits comfortably--too comfortably, in point of fact--into the genre that these two powerful influences have played major roles in shaping. Its narrator, Deborah Mills, has done just about everything readers have come to expect of the protagonists of these sophisticated new "women's novels." She has moved to the chaos of Manhattan from the quiet order of the provinces; she has proved her mettle in a challenging job (urban planning) not traditionally available to a woman; she has acquired and been deserted by a husband; and now she finds herself at the beginning of a new life, torn between her desire to return to the security of her past and her knowledge that she must move along into an uncertain--but perhaps ultimately happier and more fulfilling--future. She is discovering that liberation is a mixed blessing:
"My universe had begun in a small town and in a sense all I'd done was extend myself like the spokes of a wheel from the spot, but in truth I'd never left home. For the world of my childhood was the world of order. If you had work to do, you did it. If you married someone, you stayed with him. Projects that failed, marriages that didn't work out, children that turned bad. These things only occurred to those who had suffered a failure of vision. Even natural disasters happened only to people who didn't think carefully about where they'd live. Earthquakes, unemployment, divorce, such things could never happen to me."
She had come to the city from the Middle West armed with the conviction that "you could order people's lives," and she had been strengthened in that conviction by her marriage to Mark, a lawyer: "You know, I married the man I wanted to marry. That's the truth. I loved Mark and he was exactly what I wanted." Or so she thought then. But after seven years, Mark slips into an affair with an old friend of Deborah's, and suddenly she must face up to the unpleasant reality that the husband of her dreams is a selfish, manipulative, heartless bounder.
Her instinctive reaction to his departure--and this Mary Morris handles with particular perception--is cold fury. Her existence becomes "a rather straightforward and primitive desire for revenge"; as she wryly notes, "My heroes of late had become John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald." Then she meets a moviemaker named Sean (a certifiable Ann Beattie name, that), a laid-back fellow whose undemanding offers of affection and trust she does not quite know how to handle; burned once, she has little appetite for a second singeing. Gradually, though, her rage against Mark and his lover begins to subside, to be replaced by a growing love for Sean and a growing need to be with him. The question--one that readers of the genre have heard a few times before--is whether she is self-possessed and secure enough to seize the opportunity that Sean presents: Can she accept, within her new independence and without sacrificing it, the old order and security that she still craves?
It's not a bad question, and the answer to it that Morris grants to Deborah is an appealing one. Yet the question, like so much else in Crossroads, is notable primarily for its lack of originality. There is a bull market these days in novels about (and by) intelligent, sheltered, attractive, privileged young women who suddenly discover that life Out There is real and that they can't cling forever to Daddy. These writers have been very skillfully groomed by the creative-writing professoriat, and their novels are smooth as silk; but the expertise with which they tell these tales cannot disguise their familiarity, nor can it disguise their fundamental narcissism.
Crossroads is more expansive and less self-absorbed than many in the genre, and Mary Morris is a good, perceptive writer: almost good and perceptive enough to make the reader forget that she is telling a twice-told tale. But the charms of her prose and of her two principal characters are insufficient to make the reader unaware that she is merely providing another guided tour of the old, familiar places: the chic, ferny eateries that serve the latest "in" pastas; the comfy country house where no last names are allowed and the white wine flows freely; the tight Manhattan apartments where ids and egos clash monotonously and destructively. Starring Jill Clayburgh and Alan Bates.
These are, of course, perfectly legitimate subjects for novels and movies and television series and anything else, but the point is that terminal repetition seems to be at hand; there seems to be nothing new or interesting to say about them, and no new or interesting ways to say it. When the writer treading this familiar territory is as gifted as Mary Morris, it seems a particular waste.