"Mother's Helper" is a first novel, set in 1970 in a New England college town and starring a sensitive, confused freshman named Laura. "Eating Cake," set in 1964 at Bennington College in Vermont is a second novel and therefore gets two heroines: Vally, the leonine "child of nature"; and Leighton, the intellectualizer who is apparently closer to the author's heart, since she has most of the insights.
Both novels are written with the requisite dashes of wry-and-bitters; all three girls achieve at least a slight acquaintance with sex and drugs. Freely divides her book into four sections, one for each season; Marsh opts for "Fall," "Winter" and "Spring" with a "Summer" prologue and epilogue. In "Mother's Helper" the world is listing heavily to the left in an "open," radical-liberal-chic stream, while in "Eating Cake" the center of the revolution is the autmoated pseudo-liberalism of the Greenwich Village beatnik/folkie scene.
In "Mother's Helper," Laura, devoid of any traditional job skills, answers a bulletin-board ad for the titular job-description. The family that placed the ad appears to epitomize enlightened liberalism: The three children, aged 4 to 8, are encouraged to express themselves freely and vote in duly recorded meetings. When they misbehave they are sent into a closet to "think."
Having established such a Spockian paradise, Freely cuts loose: The mother's lover moves in; every fatuous argument becomes public via the intercom system; the women's magazine group trades sexual-politik darts; the children begin wielding scissors in mysterious rituals. Laura is helpless to comprehend any of this laborious adulthood, and, when she is dismissed, senses only vaguely the dangers behind her.
Freely's greatest accomplishment is that she can satirize these self-conscious progressives so fiercely through Laura's eyes and still maintain her protagonist's naivete. This limited-viewpoint style is what writing teachers tend to call "high-risk," but it is extradinarily effective when carried off -- as it is here.
"Eating Cake" escapes cliche-dom mostly by virtue of its throwaway passages; the actions portrayed are predictable, but Marsh has a flair for minimal description that holds the novel together.
She captures exactly the elusive ghost of Leighton's dead mother, that sense which everyone who has lost a parent while very young carries for forever -- one not so much of loss as of incomplete knowledge. She is also adept at evoking the common but barely articulated emotions that are aroused by the sight of October stars and trees and that look climbable.
This is a far more passive book (college life equals experience equals knowledge equals a plot) and a less interestingly eccentric one that "Mother's Helper," but it has its moments. Leighton and Vally are not always convincing characters -- Leighton is too clever half the time and not clever enough the rest; Vally starts out as a likeable hedonist and is unreasonably transformed into a self-indulgent pouter -- but their confusion has the ring of authenticity about it.
The only problem is, there's something about "Eating Cake" that makes you think Marsh will be writing adolescence novels forever, while Maureen Freely may have disposed of all that angst in one swell Swoop.