Introspective, insecure, bookish Anne Craig would tell herself "be Harriet" when she was in a hard-to-handle situation. She had always admired and envied her sister, a budding actress, daughter of a New England minister but willing to put on lipstick and slip out her bedroom window in the parsonage and prowl after nocturnal adventures when she was still in her mid-teens.
"I thought of her as someone who always knew what to do," muses Anne much later. "Though even then I must really have known that it was only my own image of her that I could ever imitate. I have spent my life going from one myth to another."
The particular myth that occupies "Sheltered Lives" is one at least as old as "The Odyssey" -- a myth of departure and return. Married to Nat, an English professor who has abandoned his Dickens studies and turned to antiwar activism in the depths of the Nixon years, Anne takes some time out to visit Harriet, her painter-husband, Seth, and their three children at their adobe home in Taos. She plans to reconsider her relations with Nat and perhaps to finish her second novel.
Myths die quickly in the clear, sunsaturated air of New Mexico. The most important and the most quickly killed are the myths of Harriet's contentment and competence and of the possibility of a safe return from such a visit. Harriet, it turns out, intensely unhappy -- trapped by children whom she finds not only a joy but a crushing responsibility and a block to her own fulfillment; yoked to a husband who is totally involved in his painting (or rather his career as a painter) at the expense of all human contacts.
As for Nat and the home left behind in New England, they seem less and less substantial as Anne buys a home in Taos and slips into the life there ("a colony of rather dreadful sub-arty people," in the words of D. H. Lawrence, who was once the area's most distinguished inhabitant). Anne sends letter after letter, asking Nat when he will come out to join her -- and never gets an answer. She sees a picture on the front page of The New York Times -- a leader at a demonstration on his campus, who may or may not be her husband. A friend writes to say that Nat is being seen with another woman, but "everybody is on your side."
Is there anything to return to back East? Is there anything in Taos worth staying for? Is there a place in the world today for a young woman who grew up in a Victorian mansion in New England, devoured the novels of Jane Austen and framed her idea of the world on the models she saw in those books? The world of Austen seems very far away when Anne is fighting black widow spiders for the control of her adobe home in New Mexico. And there is no parsonage to return to (her father has retired; the old house has been sold). There is, most likely no Nat to return to -- if she wants to return, and she is not sure.
The story is told in the form of a diary kept by Anne, with occasional letters written to Nat (but no answers). The writing is good, sometimes exquisite, the observations sharp and convincing -- more so as the months go by, the short entries accumulate and characters and events slowly come into focus.
"Sheltered Lives" occasionally has the overtones of a feminist novel. Harriet thinks that perhaps she "should have been a beautiful little fool" and wonders why she was given any talents: "Sometimes I think of intelligence in girls as something that nature just hasn't taken the trouble to eliminate, like nipples on men. The only possible use for it is being able to pass it on to our sons." Besides women who seek expression in the arts (thick as flies at Taos), the book is stocked with women who join committees, march in demonstrations, ask people to sign petitions -- and one earth-mother whose child suffers malnutrition because she insists on breast-feeding it. But Mary Hazzard's view is too panoramic, her sympathies and interests too diverse, for her book to be reduced to a simple thesis.
This is more than an ordinarily good novel. Precisely because it is not simple-minded, it lacks the potential of massive sales and a major film contract, but it illuminates the subjects it touches and it will reward the serious reader richly.