Stories just aren't the same anymore with Capulets and Montagues. Back when society was presumably mean, repressed and intolerant, a girl could suffer whole booksful of agonies as a heroine oppressed by heartless outside forces and earn any reader's sympathy by page 50. Society is different now, and so are books. The characters' afflictions are equally intense, but primarily self-inflicted, and somehow it's harder to weep for a Juliet who only got what she asked for.
Sophie, the protagonist in "A Time to Embrace," is not quiet Juliet, of course. For one thing, as her mother says, she refuses to suffer the way she should. In times of stress, she tends to get addicted to things -- sex, morphine, cigarettes, cards -- which takes the pressure off and makes life a little easier to bear.
Furthermore, her brand of innocence is distinctly un-Julietlike. The daughter of a curious union between a German father and a Turkish mother, Sophie makes her emergence from an emotionally underpriviledged childhood into the adolescent-crushed stage by matter-of-factly cuckolding her father with her own stepmother. Something of an overreactor to the passages of life, she spends a good measure of the next several years tuned to the fork of her body, little Sophie one-note.
Later she looks back on this epiode as "a completely pure love," but a more objective observer might see it as the first serious evidence of a total self-involvement which abides unchanged from her 12-year-old need for instant gratification to the childish imperiousness of her deathbed. Sophie never really grows up.
But my how the time flies when you're having fun. From Berlin to Venice to London, past World Wars I and II, through three husbands, several lovers, morphine addiction, flight from Hitler, the enabling of her mother's suicide, and, finally, her own death. Sophie is busy, busy, busy. Too busy, it seems, to communicate with her husbands or to heal wounded relationships, mute when she should be articulate, and all too voluble in pursuit of her own emotional catharsis, she is nevertheless portrayed sympathetically throughout the book. But no one in her life is better off for having known her, except perhaps the man to whom she relates her life story, and his fascination is a trifle puzzling.
This is not a story of decadence. Palmer does not deal in sensationalism or gory details. Instead it is a tale of hollowness. Sophie is a beautiful tree whose heartwood has rotted, whose central core of essence and meaning dried up early on. "Elementary goodness and awareness of the right priorities? I obviously had neither," she says, a state of affairs that concerns her no more after that judgment than before it.
"A Time to Embrace," best-selling in Europe, proves even more decisively than her first novel, "The Red Raven," Lillie Palmer's versatility as an artist who creates on paper as well as on stage, screen and, we are told, on canvas. She writes very well, indeed, and yet there is a lifelessness about it all. Against all the current preachments of literary fashion, I believe it lies in the refusal of the author to communicate her relationship with her creation to the reader. We know Dickens disapproved of Uriah Heep Hemingway's identification with certain of his characters is unmistakable even James Joyce shows up behind all those words like the shadowy pictures of Abraham Lincoln formed out of thousands of typewritten letters.
Instead, Palmer has palmed herself, disappeared in the middle of the crowd of characters and issues so even-handedly presented that nothing of her shows. The book, like its heroine, has no center.
One wouldn't demand a message perhaps if "A Time to Embrace" did not appear to promise one. But Palmer's style and content pretend to more than a standard pseudo-serious romance. Themes like goodness and values and love and risk and independence rise and fall like waves on the sea, and then all the characters go on to the next foolish or tragic or deadening event, high and dry, like the reader, untouched.
Maybe that's the message, but I don't think so. This book is touted as a "novel of a woman's survival." But Sophie doesn't hang on, she simply hangs around, making all the same old mistakes. The reader keeps thinking, not "How very true, " or "How sad for you," but instead, "How dumb can you get?"