LOVINGKINDNESS By Anne Roiphe Summit. 279 pp. $17.95
USED TO BE our mothers worried we wouldn't be "good girls," that we would reject traditional marriage and family for careers, that we would, horror of horrors, take up this "women's lib stuff." And, seeing that the old ways hadn't made them happy, many of us did just that. So what does my generation fear? Like our mothers, we worry that our daughters will reject our values, that instead of doctors and lawyers they will become "born-again" wives and mothers, stay-at-homes in some throwback to Leave It To Beaver waiting for Ward to come through the door every day at 5 calling, "June, I'm home!"
Such is the problem faced in the extreme by Annie Johnson, the protagonist in Anne Roiphe's Lovingkindness. Annie may be the evolution of the heroine of Roiphe's popular second novel, Up the Sandbox, the story of a young mother trying to break free of conventional drudgery. Widowed shortly before her child was born, Annie has worked hard to make a good life for herself and her daughter, Andrea, efforts that have resulted in an apartment in New York, a house in the country, good schools and good psychiatrists for her daughter. A committed feminist, she is a writer and political scientist, author of a book about New England spinsters in the 19th century. The thorn in this liberated vision of happiness is, of course, Andrea: 22-year-old high school dropout, drifter, drug abuser, survivor of three abortions.
Sometimes, Annie thinks, it's better not to hear from Andrea at all, as she hasn't for the five months before the novel begins. When Andrea does call, however, it's not with the usual plea for money because her latest boyfriend has left her; she is in Israel, living in the Yeshiva Rachel, studying Hebrew and the Torah, becoming a member of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect. She has, in fact, changed her name to Sarai, and a husband is being chosen for her. "I love you, I made my own decision, by myself. I am peaceful. I honor you, of course," she tells her mother. To Annie, this last phrase is the "most upsetting" of all: "I had never heard it or its sentiment from her before and I knew just what it meant." What's a mother to do?
"Maybe Andrea will turn out like Bruria," remarks a friend, attempting to console. Annie goes straight to the library to look up Bruria, which she discovers to be the name of a Jewish woman persecuted for her knowledge. Annie must struggle with Andrea's rejection of her values, those of an intellectual woman and a non-religious Jew, and she must also struggle with her own feelings of failure and responsibility. Annie recalls the last words her daughter spoke to her the last time they met: " 'I'll never forgive you . . .' I had no idea for what, and yet I knew exactly: everything."
BUT WHAT troubles Annie most is the idea that Andrea is giving up the freedom of a thinking person, that her daughter, always a "free spirit," to say the least, is going to live her life according to rules made by others, "infringements on your natural choices." She wonders about her own permissiveness, consulting Andrea's old psychiatrist, who can offer no answers as to where she went wrong or what can she do. It is a dilemma confronting many parents in a time when so many of our children seem so hungry for rules and limits that they will join any group which offers them.
As she contemplates Andrea's choice, Annie is thrust back into her own past and the ways in which she has distanced herself from her own parents; in trying to reconcile the lives of three generations, she begins to dream of the legendary Rabbi Nachman, who seems to be telling her something. Desperate to stop her daughter's marriage, Annie joins forces with the Roses, the parents of the boy Andrea is to marry, and journeys to Jerusalem, where events occur that are not at all what she had expected.
Annie realizes that "our mythology about mothers and daughters is thin and low on plot." So does Roiphe and in Lovingkindness she has made a contribution to the literature of mothers and daughters, of the war between generations, rightly offering no simple answers but instead giving us a heroine who is willing to face herself, her own life and responsibilities, with the same relentless intelligence she applies to everyone else. Her way, she comes to see, is not the only way. Women's history, she says, "is about loneliness: how we avoid it, court it, ride it straight to the grave," and she would despise her daughter "except that I know how insane you have to be to stay in my world, how much loneliness you have to bear you as you walk among the ruins of other households, knowing that the future may be just as bad as the past."
The novel is not without flaws. Sometimes Annie indulges in too much philosophizing, and her dreams about Rabbi Nachman seem pat, too overtly meaningful. Its premise did not immediately intrigue, but Lovingkindness is a book that insinuates itself into the reader's mind and heart page by page.
Susan Wood is a poet who teaches at Rice University.