In her engrossing first novel, "Meeting Rozzy Halfway," Caroline Leavitt told the story of an emotionally disturbed adolescent around whom whirled a maelstrom of family jealousies, rivalries, hurts and love. No less powerful a whirlwind surrounds the characters in "Lifelines."
For Duse, the heroine of Leavitt's often moving second novel, prediction is an obsession. Convinced that she possesses psychic gifts, Duse begins compiling death lists--recipe file boxes containing obituaries culled from the daily papers. Because she believes that all deaths occur in threes, Duse hopes to uncover some secret system of cross-references that will reveal the fates of everyone.
Duse also reads palms and, when given a stranger's scarf or bracelet, senses distinctive vibrations which allow her to "know, just for a moment, what it was like to be in someone else's life." When she helps a forlorn mother to recover her missing daughter, Duse attains a modest celebrity. Eventually, her followers enshrine her--but not before Duse realizes that she has failed, utterly, to protect herself from the losses she feared most.
For in pursuing her psychic vision, Duse has lost sight of those closest to her--her husband Martin, a dentist who dabbles in hypnotism, and her daughter Isadora. While Leavitt focuses more attention on the daughter's search for identity than on the mother's sad journey of discovery, it is Duse who provides the novel with its most tender, painful and playfully comic moments. Duse, who was born on Black Tuesday in 1929, may or may not be psychic, but she possesses the power to haunt, especially in her slow passage toward death:
"Duse kept studying her hand, watching that lifeline mark itself off, seal out the years. She had never seen a deathline thwarted. That had always been the one line you just couldn't change. In a way, it made things easier for her . . . What difference did it make what they did to her now?"
While Leavitt deserves special praise for giving us Duse, she has attempted much more in "Lifelines," for her book describes nothing less than the lifelong struggle between mother and daughter for love, independence and identity. The "lifelines" that connect generation to generation are stronger and more insistent, Leavitt tells us, than the wrinkles running randomly across the palms that Duse reads more voraciously than any book. But the ties that bind mother to daughter are also easily knotted, and they can be untangled only with difficulty and at great cost.
"If you had to be mother and daughter, it was easier at a distance," the adolescent Isadora discovers. Thus, after a childhood spent measuring herself against her mother, Isadora seeks to separate herself from Duse by enrolling in a distant college, limiting her visits home, and becoming so involved with a man that she creates, in effect, a new home, a new family.
Both Isadora's plight and her tactics are recognizable. Perhaps it is precisely because she feels the weight of her mother's influence so heavily that Isadora lacks the force one desires in a major character. For in spite of her attempts to define herself first as a student, then as a writer, finally as the lover of an eccentric pet shop owner named Daniel, Isadora remains a drifter, someone in search of an identity rather than someone who possesses one. Although this may have been Leavitt's point, Isadora at times seems less a character in her own right than a foil to her powerful mother.
This dark bond of struggle between mother and daughter compels Leavitt as strongly as it compels her characters, and perhaps this is why the men in "Lifelines," while well drawn, are essentially passive. Martin, Duse's husband and Isadora's father, is never less than likable, but he acquiesces to Duse too easily and too often to be considered a force in this mother-dominated family. Isadora's gentle lover Daniel seems to love Isadora less passionately than he fears being smothered by a woman's love. In Leavitt's family constellations, the women always outshine their men.
A talented writer who first gained recognition as the winner of a Redbook Young Writer's Contest, Leavitt has already found her subject--the irrevocably tangled lines that bind every family together. In the dark rivalries between mother and daughter, the gnarled bonds of family love, and the complex workings of the troubled personality, she has staked out a territory of her own