DELIA, the heroine of Mary Tannen's first novel, is a thirtyish widow with a different way of seeing. To her, the landlord appears to possess "a reptilian iridescent aura that changed colors as she talked to him." Delia's dead husband haunts the doorway, "the afterimage of the way he was the last time going out the door." And Delia fears for her son, who hangs out at the gas station. She doesn't like "what it's doing to his aura. She sees a hard glint coming off him sometimes."
Tannen has constructed a complex and artful family story set in the decayed New Jersey mill town of Wallingford that turns on several family histories, social change and the themes of greed and mysticism, "intertwining like amorous snakes" through the generations. Delia Ortega, from one of Wallingford's leading families, had married a Puerto Rican man who is dead when the novel opens. She has taken the name Destiny for her work as a phone-in psychic, and is barely managing to support herself and her son. A child-woman, she believes people are good; her pragmatic sister Cass insists that people only do good to get something and that everything has its price. "Men don't protect women because they like to be gallant. They do it because they want to sleep with them," she lectures. Danger lurks, and everyone in the family fears for Delia and her son.
This tale of conflict and near tragedy is a sort of unpredictable fairy tale with the good and the bad all finally getting their due, though I don't mean to suggest that this work is slight in any way. A rescuer-prince appears, several in fact, and the women make a lot of jokes about them -- not unlike the women in Angela Carter's wonderful Nights at the Circus. One of these princes is a film producer from New York who drives into town in his Jaguar to confront the psychic who told his love to leave him. He is captivated by Delia's innocence, as well as by her "byzantine" style of love-making. The other rescuer-prince is a history instructor in search of a PhD thesis, who after months of Wallingford, realizes what's up. He reflects that, "all these women with not enough to do, no prospects, no power, have invented him. They've made a gothic hero out of a timid history instructor . . ."
This tale abounds with strong individual characters, who nevertheless get "locked up in love," as Cass puts it, pining away for something they lost long ago. Just as remarkable is the novel's style. Tannen cuts back and forth between the various stories as they unfold, until they all seem present at once with everyone talking at once -- but clearly -- in fresh, authentic, vibrantly unselfconscious voices.
MASTER storyteller John L'Heureux's novel, a tragi-comedy of sorts, centers on not one but two women run mad -- literally driven crazy by men. Readers of L'Heureux, a former Jesuit who has written many books, will know what to expect. He is elegant, cunning and wickedly funny.
Quinn, a writer, is vacillating between his good, hardworking, intellectual wife, Claire, a classics scholar who supports him while he attempts to produce a novel -- and a fragile, beautiful, aging (she's over 30), shoplifting debutante. When he discovers that his lover has had a lover before him, he rushes home to his wife. But Claire is pregnant and putting on weight, so he rushes back to Sarah.
Claire marshals her strength to deal with Quinn, whom she wants back. Meanwhile, through elaborate intellectual gymnastics to exorcise his guilt, Quinn comes to regard himself as "a sterile soul redeemed not by love, but by sex." The novel he's writing, as you might guess, and his affair both reflect this viewpoint, and they proceed apace.
Quinn determines that Sarah needs him more than Claire does. So Claire turns to Sarah's homosexual bodyguard for solace, and together they roam history and philosophy, searching for answers to their individual miseries. Here, L'Heureux shows Quinn no mercy, invoking Kierkegaard: "An ideal husband," the bodyguard tells Claire, "is not one who is such just once in his life, but one who is such every day." Claire and the bodyguard debate religious ideals from ancient Greece to Christianity to existentialism, with Claire concluding that "the only mortal sin -- in the primitive sense of mortal -- is the refusal to live your own life."
And then L'Heureux -- I said he was tricky -- blows up the whole thing in your face, with a shocking, shocking denouement. The reader will feel played with, but it's that kind of novel, a psycho-philosophic thriller -- and more. It's a study of the dangers of love thwarted.
PARTIES are what I have loved most my whole life," says Irene, the subject of this short, coming-of-age novel set in the late 1930s. At 19, Irene is vaguely aware of Hitler and of Jews, but she defends her love of parties: "It's a harmless desire! If more people felt it there'd be more fun in the world. More fun, more costume parties, and fewer wars."
We promptly see her setting sail for France, thanks to her aunt, who has hired her as a buyer at a swank Columbus, Ohio, department store, to visit the great fashion houses. From this, Lynn Caraganis has developed a stylish narrative tinged with nostalgia. We see Irene first on the ship, joking, partying, drinking and crying. She fears ridicule, although she is beautiful and superbly turned out, and she fears making a stupid mistake when buying dresses for the store.
The evocation of the era -- a time when a young woman could be sent to a good hotel and be well looked after -- and the milieu are just right, from the manners and food (croquettes, scalloped potatoes) to the cigarettes, lit with "a big Ronson," and gin fizzes, to the language and style. Irene is from a well-to-do family, and she doesn't bother to learn French money; she pays the cabbies on the "willy-nilly system" by which you "just give them something and see what happens."
She is a woman of taste, if not politics, and dares to differ with her aunt over designers. Irene loves Chanel; her aunt favors a third-rate manufacturer who made clothes with pansy applique's and loops for hankies, but who "represented steady salaries for poor immigrant women. Women from places we couldn't even pronounce, but who spoke to us in the international language of sewing!"
Caraganis has an uncanny, almost witchy way of becoming the subconscious of her character, a technique that suggests Jayne Anne Phillips' Black Tickets or Pamela Hadas in Designing Women, although this is a lesser work. Finally it fails; not because events are too predictable -- Irene falls in love with a young Jewish man in Paris -- but because the author has gone up against that old caveat: it is much harder to write about a vapid, boring character than about a clever, witty one. Although Caraganis tries hard, the novel is always in danger of sinking with Irene at the center.
THIS novel by the daughter of poet Anne Sexton, which surrounds the loss of a child, is a puzzle: when it's good, it's good enough to keep you reading. The narrator, Allie, is an artist turned farmwife. She does not want children at first, but when they come she rises to them and manages to work on her painting and help her husband on the farm too. Their life leaves little to be desired, until tragedy strikes and everything unravels.
Oddly, Linda Sexton seems to handle the most difficult material best: the experience of being an artist, marital intimacy, childbirth, death. The writing in these scenes is tight and conveys emotion we can feel. But she runs aground with rambling, excessively detailed accounts of incidents that matter little, if at all, to the narrative, and with quirks, such as frequent bursts of child-speak. Just a couple of many instances: "One brest, two brest. Mommee got two brestzz . . ." And: "Icekeem! I yike icekeem!"
Allie descends into temporary insanity after the loss of her adored son, but following a suicide attempt, her abrupt return to normalcy is less convincing. Sexton possesses a gift, nonetheless, for plumbing some of the deepest emotions, and these scenes haunt the reader beyond the finish of the book.
TO BE young, gifted and on scholarship to Oxford, what more could a poor young woman want? Much more as a matter of fact, for England just after World War II, when this story is set, was unquestionably and utterly a man's world, and Oxford an upper-class man's world.
The tenor of the times is captured perfectly in the opening exchange between the young woman -- four months pregnant and on her way to London for an illegal abortion with borrowed money -- and a well-known novelist she met at the university. "Excuse me," he says in the train corridor. " . . . I think you must be the girl Ian and the other fellows . . . were talking about . . . the boyfriend is out of the country, is that it? And she finds out she's pregnant and can't get an abortion until after Schools is over?"
The betrayed confidence was all very sympathetic, the novelist goes on to say: "It was in the context of talking about scholarship students; then we got on to the special difficulties of the women." He attempts then to dissuade her from what she is about to do, arguing that women either hate themselves afterward or become hardened. Either would be disastrous for her, in that she is a poet. She wavers briefly, sensing that although he is the kind of person who "takes over, he invades," yet there is something gentle and sad in him. His wife has left him, and she wonders if "it is actually possible -- a man who wants a child?"
The novel is somewhat determinedly structured with a lengthy series of flashbacks to provide information about the young woman's past. The best sections deal with life at Oxford, where she is the only woman accepted into the poets' circle and published in their magazine. However, when Auden arrives and holds an evening of student readings, she is advised by her buddies not to attend; and she doesn't.
We see her discussing men with the other Oxford women; the consensus is that a woman must find the most intelligent man of one's generation in one's field, except if you're a novelist, then you should choose "the sexual genius," because "a novelist ought to marry someone who's good at life." And we see her eagerly plotting her first sexual experience, taking two codeine in case there is pain and burning a lock of her hair for good luck.
But with the exception of the novelist on the train, the men she knows are callous and immature, and this young woman fights a lonely, harrowing battle to rise above her cirumstances. It is a fine story, reasonably well told.
Carol Eron is editor of the literary magazine Folio.