THREE CONTINENTS By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Morrow. 384 pp. $18.95
FOR DAYS after finishing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's new novel, I was haunted by it. I kept wanting to go back to those final pages, to open them out and force them to say more -- to change the ending, or add onto it, or in some way undo the irrevocable, disturbing story laid out in Three Continents. And whether this response is due to the book's virtues or to its flaws, I still don't know.
Readers of Jhabvala's other works of fiction, and viewers of her screenplays, will already have guessed that the three continents referred to in the title are North America, Europe, and Asia -- or, more specifically, New York, London and Delhi. The novel progresses through each of these three locations like a traveling house party, its cast of characters expanding slightly to accommodate late guests, contracting when one or another falls ill or goes home, and manifesting by the end the kind of ragged exhaustion that prolonged overexposure to the same small group of people will produce.
Narrated by its female protagonist, a rich young American woman named Harriet Wishwell, Three Continents describes the increasingly intense involvement of Harriet and her twin brother, Michael, with a worldwide cause (not unreminiscent of the Moonies) labeled the "Fourth World Movement." This effort to transcend national boundaries through a secular rather than spiritual unity is led by an odd trio of Easterners: the Rawul, his consort the Rani, and their adopted son Crishi (whose name and situation naturally link him with Christ -- a highly intentional irony on Jhabvala's part). Michael brings these people to his and Harriet's country house, which they co-own with their mother and her lesbian lover (their father lives in New York, with his 20-year-old girlfriend); and gradually Michael persuades his family to donate their house and their enormous wealth to the Rawul's cause.
In the face of Michael's commitment, Harriet is the skeptical holdout, despite her previously seamless closeness to her brother; but eventually she's won over by her sexual and emotional attachment to Crishi, who marries her and thus cements the link between the two families. Crishi, incidentally, begins the novel as Michael's homosexual lover, crosses over to Harriet early on, and meanwhile manages not only to retain his previous lovers -- including his "adopted mother," the Rani -- but also to acquire new ones, such as a newswoman who profiles the Fourth World Movement.
IT IS TO Jhabvala's enormous credit that she manages to present this material -- a cross between Dynasty, The Golden Bowl, and Frances FitzGerald's expose' of the Rajneeshis -- with extreme tact and distance. Harriet is both a cold fish and a very passionate woman, and she makes a good vehicle for this story, which in other hands might ignite from excess. Her perceptions are simultaneously sharp and dull: she's excellent at presenting small, revealing details about people and places, but seems unable to interpret such details correctly, so we increasingly understand more about the corrupt situation than she does. Moreover, her attachment to Crishi blinds her -- and, finally, willfully blocks her off -- from any true understanding of her horrifying surroundings, so that further knowledge would in any case be useless to her.
Yet the narration by Harriet, which is the novel's most interesting feature, is also its greatest flaw. At the beginning, and at various points throughout the book, we are led to believe that this is being composed many years later, by the mature Harriet. Yet the novel works its way from an initial state of apparent objectivity into deeper and deeper enslavement to illusion, so that we can't imagine, at the end, how the woman Harriet has become could ever have written the opening pages of Three Continents. "Can this be all there is?" I felt, as I got to the ghastly end of the tale. I was tempted to shake the edition of the book I held in my hands, as if new pages and further explanations might drop out of the cover.
Possibly the only solution to this problem would be to tell Harriet's story through film rather than through fiction. The problem of the narrator would then disappear, and one would simply be able to follow, with intense expectation and distressed sympathy, the story of the Wishwells' disaster. This is a solution, I think, that perhaps Jhabvala has already contemplated -- for she dedicates the novel to James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, her co-creators of numerous films based on novels. I almost wish that in this case she had chosen to skip the intermediate form: unlike The Europeans or The Bostonians (Merchant-Ivory productions), Three Continents will make a better movie than book.
Wendy Lesser, editor of the literary magazine The Threepenny Review, is the author of "The Life Below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History."