THE PAGODA IN THE GARDEN

A Novel in Three Parts

By Wendy Lesser

Handsel. 212 pp. $23.95

The three parallel stories that compose Wendy Lesser's new novel are like stop-frame photos that illustrate shifts that are not so obvious in the rapid motion of time. By freezing intensely personal moments from 1901, 1956 and 1973, The Pagoda in the Garden highlights changes not in technology or politics but in perception. Appropriately, given the book's delineation of mental subtleties, its title comes from Henry James's last novel, The Golden Bowl (1904). In a particularly rich but opaque passage -- even for James -- his heroine realizes that she's been mulling over a complicated romantic situation at "the very centre of the garden of her life . . . like some strange tall tower of ivory, or perhaps rather some wonderful beautiful but outlandish pagoda."

Each of the American heroines in Lesser's three stories experiences a moment of realization like that: at once captivating but unsettling. And because each story is built around a similar core -- a woman in England involved in an unstable romance that must be kept secret -- the differences between these eras stand out in striking ways.

The first story, which is so brilliant that it can't help but make the second and third seem pale by comparison, imagines a writer (clearly patterned on Edith Wharton) on the eve of her Pulitzer Prize reception in 1926. Instead of finalizing her acceptance speech, as she should, she's consumed with a story that she wrote 25 years earlier, inspired by a day she spent in Cambridge at the home of her mentor (clearly patterned on Henry James). I know that a story about a writer writing a story about a writer sounds like a cup of literary tedium, but don't pass this up. In Lesser's hands, it's fascinating, for two reasons: first, because the tale set at James's chaotic home involving unspoken (and, at the time, unspeakable) romantic entanglements is rendered in such a clever imitation of Wharton's penetrating and witty style; and second, because the narrator, looking back on her 25-year-old story, makes such provocative comments about the changes in the way we think of ourselves and portray our interactions. "I long to tear open that suffocatingly self-analyzing prison and escape into something clearer," she says, "something less nuanced and attenuated. Let us have some fact for a change, some incident. Let us really see [the] House and its inhabitants from the outside."

We can see some of that longed-for freedom and objectivity in the style and characters of the second story, set in Cambridge in 1956. It's about a novelist named Sarah Jameson, a divorced mother who begins an affair with a young married man. They meet at "a certain sort of dinner party . . . with cold cucumber soup." It's an evening of casual chat, in stark contrast to the elegant, ritualized evenings half a century earlier. But despite their pretense of openness and transparency, these people get no relief from the prison of self-consciousness, nor do they really know each other better than do their refined predecessors. Indeed, Sarah realizes with a shock that the young man with whom she thinks she's having an affair is not, after all, young and doesn't think he's having an affair with her.

The third story moves to the 1970s and describes an American graduate student mired in a messy relationship with a computer scientist in Cambridge. These students enjoy a kind of sexual license unimaginable to earlier generations, and the story's style reflects it. But for all her candor and liberation, this modern young woman -- "a bore on the subject of feminism" -- gets no closer to happiness or clarity than the women in the two earlier stories. Yes, she's successfully taken responsibility for her own orgasms, but Lesser demonstrates that something's been lost over the decades: that cerebral sensitivity that enables the narrator in the first story to experience every glance over a cup of tea as bursting with meaning and feeling.

It's hard to believe that this is Lesser's first novel -- not only because it's so sophisticated but because she's been helping shape literary culture for 25 years as the editor of the Threepenny Review. Perhaps her long posting in that elegant observatory gave her this special insight on our changing mores and ways of portraying them. Clearly, she's taken the Master's advice and become a writer "on whom nothing is lost." *

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.