If life is unfair, so is literature. Worthy and estimable characters go, no doubt, to their reward, but we remember, if not prefer, those characters that are prickly, sharp-tongued, often unkind, and whose progress through life resembles a hurricane rather than a cooling breeze. Jane Bennet, however sweet and charming she is, is not the heroine of "Pride and Prejudice." Virtue does not make good copy. And in Carolyn See's fine novel "Rhine Maidens," of her two main characters, it is the termagant mother rather than the worthy daughter who is the odds-on favorite.
Grace, the mother, still a beautiful woman, has never recovered from the fact that her first husband, Fran, deserted her and left her with their daughter, Garnet. Hurt has become anger, and like a grieving figure of mythology, she will not tolerate the happiness of others. She complains, nags, faints when thwarted, throws tantrums and is as unpleasant and difficult as she is funny. She also has a nose for cant and can sniff a phony a block away. People are jerks, stupids and N.F.'s (no futures).
She regards her life as dull, nothing compared to the golden years of the late '30s and early '40s in Los Angeles when, with her friend Pearl, she danced, shopped and had their "one-every-two-weeks payday order" at Lyman's Restaurant. Grace tells her version of the past and present in the form of an imaginary conversation with the now-dead Pearl, the only one who might understand her behavior.
Garnet, the daughter, married to a successful television producer, lives a life that is in complete contrast to her mother's. Garnet has chosen to embrace suburban matronhood deliberately and systematically: She takes classes, attends lunches, supports fashionable causes (the bumper sticker "Another Mother for Peace" on her car makes Grace "puke"), and dresses so well that though she is plain, she can pass as "old money from Pasadena."
Garnet has opted for safety, for the camouflage of convention. But she is too circumspect, too mute, though we can sympathize with her and cheer when, in a scene of high comedy, she becomes her mother's daughter and confronts her husband and his mistress. She attacks the woman on the terrace of a fashionable restaurant, leaving her with two perfectly bald spots over her ears. "Let her try to pass it off as this year's Bo Derek haircut!"
Garnet's story is told in entries in a journal she is required to keep for a college class. She is a far more worthy person than her mother, and her reaction to her unhappy childhood has been constructive, but worth somehow never receives its just deserts.
Nothing is sacred to Grace. An elderly widower, whom even she admits is a decent sort, falls in love with her, and in telling of his wife's painful death mentions the Ku bler-Ross movement. And Grace says to Pearl:
"He gave me the talk on this woman who thought it was high style to die, who thought the most fun thing in the world was to rent a hospital bed and stick it right in the middle of the living room and then to sit around and play canasta with this dying person until he gave you a big smile and died."
Garnet, who fears her mother and is irritated by her, tries to please her, but the attempts always misfire. Mother and daughter will never be friends, but by the end of the book Garnet loses her fear, and Grace recognizes her responsibility for what Garnet has become.
Carolyn See has an eye for the little details that give a place authenticity. She is aware of all that makes southern California in its way as anthropologically interesting as a remote Pacific island, but the data are noted with affection and tolerant amusement.
This is ultimately a story about loss, the loss of love, of friends and of places. "The ends of all things" are mourned. On an excursion down the Rhine, Grace realizes for the first time her own responsibility for the past. Like the Lorelei, the nine Rhine maidens whose beauty and singing bewitched men and caused them to die on the rocks, she, too, has caused pain. In admitting this to herself, she raises the possibility that she might rejoin "the outside world where the fun was . . . Los Angeles with lights."
In creating a character as rambunctious as Grace, See has written a book about women that is agreeably free from passive self-pity and humorless hand-wringing. Grace is a force to be reckoned with, not a virtue wronged and suffering silently. It is a book in the best tradition of comedy, where laughter is close to tears.