ELIZABETH BENEDICT has written an engaging romance about the ultimate anti-romantics, the young urban professionals who appear to prefer their work and their bi-coastal liaisons to love. But the characters in this novel are not clich,eed baby boomers, those Nautilus-addicted nincompoops who spend whole evenings debating the meaning of al dente; although they became adults in the '70s, they were formed by the social and political upheavals of the '60s.
"Till death do us part" is not their style. As one of the characters observes, she has "a twenty-one-day rule about relationships. All you got was twenty-one days with anyone. They could be all in a row or they could be spread out over a year, but that was all you got."
When love comes, the people in Slow Dancing do not so much fall as flop or crash into it; love is so unusual as to seem unnatural. Instead of enjoying love's pleasures and consolations, they fret about its demands. It interferes with their jobs, their friendships, their easy promiscuity.
The heroine of Benedict's excellent first novel, Lexi Steiner, is a smart immigration lawyer in her late twenties. Moved by a spirit both pioneering and aimless, she has traveled westward in search of a better life, from New York to San Francisco to Los Angeles. It's there that she begins to understand there is no promised land. Good climate and avocados are not enough. Easy sex doesn't really satisfy her either, even though at the start of the novel she's determined "that sleeping with men you didn't care about was an acquired taste and that she had acquired it." Lexi is a woman at loose ends. The turmoil in her psyche is summed up by a large freeway sign leaning against the wall of her living room: "TURN AROUND, YOU ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY."
And Lexi's not the only one. Her college roomate, Nell, sought a contract to write a book about single women but now has her doubts. She writes Lexi that one of her subjects has told her, "It didn't occur to me until this year that I'd probably spend my life alone. It doesn't scare me as much I always thought it would."
But Nell continues: "It's almost the same thing a handful of SW's have told me in the last two months. A cultural phenomenon -- not the being alone but the lack of fear or maybe the lack of shame. Spinsterhood is moving uptown. But I'm beginning to think I don't want to be on that bus. How am I going to finish this book with an attitude like that?"
The third major character in the novel, David Wiley, is not in any better shape than either of the women. He's a successful journalist, jetting from one assignment to another, but he hasn't got a home. His New York co-op has been sold, he's put his furniture in storage, and he travels from city to city, staying with friends or in anonymous, high-rise hotels. His affairs are brief, unromantic encounters. The person who means the most to him, his 14-year-old daughter, is more of a burden than a joy; he loves her but feels incapable of being a proper father.
Like its title, the pace of Slow Dancing is leisurely. There are no violent confrontations, no shocking reversals, no high- speed narrative thrust. Nor is there much of a plot at all. What makes this novel pleasurable is the author's ability to depict characters. The reader believes in Lexi's and Nell's old friendship not because Benedict tells us how long it's lasted, but because she shows us. Their dialogue is real: the easy, quippy shorthand exchange between people who know one another thoroughly.
There are no real surprises in the book. When Lexi and David's one-night-stand turns out to be the real thing, the reader does not gasp in amazement; what the reader does is smile with pleasure watching the inevitable flowering of romantic love between two not-so-consenting adults. David and Lexi stop bopping and boogying; they learn to slow dance.
Each year, there are a number of competent first novels published. Perhaps it has something to do with the proliferation of creative writing workshops and Masters of Fine Arts programs, but there seem to be more and more authors capable of creating a perfectly polished sentence, every word a jewel. But Elizabeth Benedict's writing is more than merely well-wrought. It's alive. Benedict's debut is auspicious because she goes a step beyond craftsmanship. She creates people who are touching, human, and memorable.