FOR THE CONSTANT READER there is a special excitement somewhere in the cerebellum at the sight of a novel by a new novelist. Before the first sentence is read, there is the kind of arousal that Anatole Broyard, in his collection of essays, Aroused by Books, talks about as a sense of danger. He says that every time he opens a book he risks his life, his conception of what life should be.
I share Broyard's excitement, especially in the presence of first novels that tend to have, if nothing else, the promised glow of a new vision to which I often respond, sometimes excessively. The sight of a first novel seems to suggest fresh hope for the future of fiction.
Of the three first novels at hand only the first is an outright poor start. Oxford Girls is a flat little story, told by Barbara Mercer (an English editor) with an almost purposeful amateurism.
It concerns two friends at the university, one selfish and beautiful, the other plain, passive, and intelligent, who go their separate ways after graduation. After twelve years they come together to discover they are both much as they once were. There is one moment during their reunion when they confess the failures of their lives and decide they will cure it all by living together. For a few moments they share "a beautiful dream--a dream of friendship," and then it ends abruptly and they separate, never to meet again.
Strangely enough, the outline sounds better than the book is. The writing is so matter-of-fact and colorless that I quickly grew indifferent to Clare's series of men and beddings down and her half-hearted career as an actress, as well as to Jess' cold marriage to an unfaithful Oxford don who has a cool, intellectual little boy. Barbara Mercer also has some irksome habits, like getting ahead of her story ("I didn't know that I would never see Helen again"; "But it was not to last").
Few first novels are afflicted with as dull a start as Oxford Girls. The pace improves as the reader moves into it. It is as if the writer were learning her craft as she proceeded, but too late, alas, to save the novel from banality.
On the face of it, Victim of Love (the title is ironic but still, it rings with the hollow passion of romances) is a simple, often-heard story of a middle-class familiy on the Upper West Side of New York City. Paul is an attractive college professor, writer, and novelist with two young lovers. His wife Linda understandably is disenchanted with him and discontented with her life and their two typically obnoxious children; she too has a lover. Add to this m,elange Paul's mother, Rita, who is secretly dying of cancer in her apartment in Brooklyn. The crisis is predictable: Linda discovers Paul's infidelities, a divorce is begun, he agrees he will marry his more avid young woman, and Rita dies alone in a hospital. All this, in typical soap-opera fast-time, happens between Christmas and Easter.
Behind this facade, Dyan Sheldon (even her name sounds, deceptively as it turns out, like the creator of slick fiction) has done some intriguing things with her cast of family members and their connections. She has provided them with depth and breadth, made us well acquainted with their characters and psyches, and persuaded us that they are genuine human beings, not stock characters. Some of this is accomplished by her knowledge of the inner workings of bourgeois intellectuals. The rest is the result of layer upon layer of detail, authentic for every character, every place, each event. The simple, charcoal sketch of professional middle-class life in Manhattan takes on texture and thickness. An example: Paul teaches an English-as-a-second-language section at his college, as well as graduate courses. He hates them both:
"He is sandwiched between the deprived on one side and the depraved on the other; flanked by the drugged and desperate in one direction, and by the Burger King mentality on the other. There is no joy, no zest for learning, no love of knowledge. They have no discipline, no goals that cost under $200, no yearning to stand a head above the common mass. If they can't put it on, put it in, or put it up, then it doesn't exist. And the ambitious ones are even worse, hoarding their good grades like nuggets of gold; quibbling, their little nose twitching, their beady little eyes shining, over the difference between a 95 and a 96. . ."
Sheldon takes no sides in the endless battle between the sexes. If men accuse women of being sexist, parading before them long lists of complaints, objections, wrongs, then men, on the other hand, state their objections to women convincingly. The result is a balanced (and, of course, discouraging) view of sex, marriage, parenthood, old age, the academic world, all seen by a cold-eyed and impartial referee whose head swivels from one court to the other, seeing all the faults but disciplining no one for them. Victim of Love may be, as I have said, a familiar story, but it is uncommonly well told.
Jane Somers is the pseudonym for an English journalist and she appears as the diarist in her own first novel, The Diary of a Good Neighbour. But there is surely no successful way "Jane Somers" can hide from the fact that she has written a powerful account of pathetic and raging old age and guilt-ridden, successful middle-age. The unexpected, strange friendship that develops between the destitute sick Maudie, aged ninety-two, and fashion editor Jane, somewhere in her early fifties, seems an unlikely subject for contemporary fiction: but don't believe it. As time passes, accounted for almost daily in Jane Somers' diary, we learn a great deal about the motives of charity, the human tendencies to turn away from those who most need love and help, the dependence of human beings on admiration and appreciation for their acts of mercy.
Most memorable is the portrait of the last months of Maudie's life, Maudie who smells, looks like a witch, lives alone (with her cat) in belligerent pride in her own place, protecting herself and her broken-down flat against all the odds of her sickness, poverty, old-age, loneliness, and the incursions of neighbors and social workers.
At first Jane is revolted by Maudie's state as is the whole battery of professional "Good Neighbours" who try to visit, reform, and then move her. Slowly, in the course of some wonderfully bitter yet funny scenes, the friendship between Jane and Maudie develops until we see something original in its terms, a new view of the variety of human connections, an insight into love based on incredible odds and oddities of character. If Maudie and Jane have at first a neurotic need for each other, their friendship grows into something natural and genuine, something quite miraculous.
Jane Somers' gift is for the graphic scene without benefit of an especially elegant prose style. Her characters are her fiction: the unlikely love she creates between two unloving and unlovable persons is no mean achievement for a first novelist. I am quick to add that, for this novel, my anticipatory excitement was rewarded. Jane Somers extends one's comprehension of the possibilities life offers, and does it with wit and compassion.