IN PREVIOUS NOVELS, especially her remarkable
2 Painted Dresses, Shelby Hearon has written movingly about adults and children trapped in dead marriages or divorce. Unlike much rendering of the modern scene, the men and women Hearon creates want to connect with someone they can love on a permanent basis. They are self-concerned yet beyond narcissism.
It was perhaps a natural step for Hearon to give the children a chance to speak, to tell us what they think of the adults. So in her seventh novel, Afternoon of a Faun, we have the stories of two young people, Jeanetta Edna Mayfield, age 15 and adopted, and Harry James, who 15 years before the novel opens, decided to "adopt" new parents. His own parents, whom he refers to as the Roses Kennedy because they both look like her, have never paid him any attention.
Much of Afternoon of a Faun is concerned with Harry's memories of his experience with his "new" parents. At the time Harry chose them, he was a 19-year-old unprofessed homosexual, and a student at an Aspen music camp. He picked Ebie and Danny Wister out of a crowded restaurant because they were so normal-looking. Ebie and Danny were expecting a late baby to take the place of their little girl who died when she was 4. Harry followed the Wisters home, not knowing that Ebie's interest in him was not motherly. Mentally unstable, Ebie had already decided to give up this baby and leave her husband. Harry, she reasoned, could divert Danny while she was in the hospital giving away the baby and could keep him company when she left. Not a particularly propitious choice of surrogate parents, but then, as the novel progresses, we find out that perhaps Harry didn't want parents after all. Maybe he just wanted Danny. But Harry's uncertain motives are part of this novel's continuing confusion.
When Afternoon of a Faun opens, it is Jeanetta's 15th birthday, the day her adoptive parents have belatedly chosen to tell her of her origins. Jeanetta, who feels betrayed, withdraws from the close relationship she has had with them. Thinking it will do her good, they send her to summer music camp. There she meets Harry. Now a professed homosexual close to 35, he is recalling his youth by living with a 19-year-old camp instructor who has Jeanetta as a student. Soon Harry and Jeanetta become casual friends.
Although we are never sure whether Jeanetta is the same child whose parents Harry knew, this is one point that doesn't matter. The adopted and the adopter can still learn something from each other. But they don't. Instead, Harry summons Danny from New Mexico to see if he can recognize at a recital which of the student musicians is his daughter, a test which he fails. With this failure by Danny, and with his own memories of anonymous parents, Harry announces the theme of this book--how parents fail their children:
"What hurt was knowing that you never knew them and they never knew you. None of them, not the ones who had you or the ones you adopted, could pick you out of a crowd. They could pass you on the street and never know you were theirs. Anybody else could be more kin. . . ."
The next day Jeanetta goes home.
Since this is a book about the failure of parents, perhaps Hearon thought it would be too easy a resolution to let the children learn something from each other. Jeanetta leaves camp, happy that she's made friends with a "real homosexual," but knowing no more about how to view her life than she did when the novel opened. Harry is stricken with grief for the love he feels he deserved but never received. He had the opportunity to mean something to Jeanetta but chose not to. When fiction fails to inform about what life either should or shouldn't be, it fails the reader, which is the sad plight of this novel.