THE MELTING POT
By Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Harper & Row. 230 pp. $16.95
WITH HER first novel, Rough Strife (1980), Lynne Sharon Schwartz established her credentials as an observer of modern marriage: more literate than most, but not so intellectual as to be unaware of the daily frictions. Her reputation rests at present on her second novel, Disturbances in the Field (1983). This ambitious work followed a group of intelligent women from college days to middle age, but Schwartz departed from the group formula to concentrate on Lydia, a happy wife, mother and musician, whose shapely life was shattered by the deaths of two of her children. Flawed but engaging, Disturbances in the Field was a serious novel that offered variations on a theme: the unexamined life is not worth living. Its readers looked forward to Schwartz's further work.
They will be disappointed by The Melting Pot and Other Subversive Stories, which does not live up to the promise of its epigraph (from Yehuda Amichai's "Advice for Good Love"): "And advice for bad love: With/ the love left over/ from the previous one/ make a new woman for yourself,/ then with what is left of that woman/ make again a new love,/ and go on like that/ until nothing remains." In this collection, there's a lot of "bad love" and some good, but most of the stories remain too inert to demonstrate the transmutations of love that interest Schwartz.
One exception is the title story, "The Melting Pot," whose two central characters have both left behind them the rules of the caste they were born into. Rita was brought up an orthodox Jew. Troubled by the terrible secret of her father's murder, she finds safety in Sanjay, a Hindu who realizes for her the fantasies she learned as a child from reading A Little Princess: secure rescue by a courtly Indian gentleman. Another richly developed story, "the Infidel," portrays Martin Solomon, artist and intellectual, who loves women and cannot be faithful to them. It would be an oversimplification to call Martin a womanizer; in his fashion, he is a devout lover whose affairs call upon soul as well as body, and Schwartz catches the bewilderment of his condition.
Longish stories like these two have the texture of novellas. They display Schwartz's gift for epigram ("The meal featured vegetables so fashionable they did not yet have English names") and for quick characterization ("He is a very large, smooth man and she clings to him like a rock climber"). There are occasional arabesques of improvisation, as when Rita visits the dentist and "is enthralled by the rows of false teeth lined up on the cabinet, pink gums and ivory teeth, the many different shapes waiting like orphans to be adopted, for mouths to come by and take them in, ready to be pressed into service chewing and forming the dental consonants. Unspoken words and stories are hiding in the teeth." At her best, Schwartz is both earthy and poetic.
But many of the stories in The Melting Pot are trivial or labored. Most irritating is "So You're Going to Have a New Body!" which hovers uncomfortably between being a satiric barb and a cri de coeur. The hearty cheer of the title is ironic; the subject is not jolly pregnancy but the corporal and psychic pain of hysterectomy, annoyingly rendered in the second person ("You are not even sure you need a new body, but your doctor says there is something inside your old one like a grapefruit, and though it is not really dangerous, it should go"). "The Subversive Divorce" is thick with turgidities like this: a husband and wife "would recklessly reveal the ingredients of an ideal mate like chefs revealing a secret recipe, and each one would try to cook it up out of the provisions at hand . . . But like inept loaves, their efforts fell flat; like cuts of meat, they were overdone or underdone, with sauces too thick or too thin."
"The Sound of Velcro" shows us a disintegrating marriage, schematically arranged. Vanessa -- "Van" -- is taut, muscular, crisp and chilly, "a machine programmed with strategies to achieve goals." Joe is deeper, dreamier, less superficial and more "civilized" than Vanessa. The decline of their marriage is abetted by the visit of Joe's retarded brother Hughie, who doesn't even have to think about getting in touch with his inner self -- he just is. This story, for all its cleverness, schematic consistency and unspoken feminist challenges, doesn't work because it rests on the initial implausibility of Van and Joe's attraction for each other.
If the stories in The Melting Pot were genuinely "subversive," as the book's subtitle proposes, they would undermine dead assumptions, insidiously engage the reader's sympathy, lift the spirit. Instead, the gimmicks get in the way. In this indifferent collection, Lynne Sharon Schwartz seems only to be marking time. Her admirers hope for better. :: Frances Taliaferro teaches English at The Brearly School in New York.