There are more bodies than souls in Nancy Thayer's third novel. It's not that the spiritual problems of the various citizens of the small New England town of Londonton are not alluded to, rather more frequently than one would like--what links Thayer's characters is their membership in the local Congregational Church, the way characters in other recent novels have been bound by their associations with a hotel or an airport or a cosmetics company or the Vatican. It's just that the descriptions of their inner lives seem less substantial and individualized than an inventory of a Rodeo Drive boutique.
How does one account for this? Thayer's first novel, "Stepping," which dealt with step-parenting, a subject that hadn't been treated in contemporary fiction, showed promise, and "Three Women at the Water's Edge" seemed to be fulfilling it. Critically well received, its characters were real people one could care about. Perhaps "Bodies and Souls" is the result of trying to produce too many novels in too short a time, or perhaps it grew out of a frustration at garnering favorable reviews but not selling books. Whatever the case, the author no longer seems to know who her audience is; in "Bodies and Souls" she wants it both ways, to be both popular and "literary" (i.e., deal with serious questions) without the skill to raise it above the level of stock and schlock. The result reads as if the late Grace Metalious had dressed up in a suit and tried to sneak into the university disguised as John Updike, only to find the suit was made of cellophane.
There is the Rev. Peter Taylor, kindly and understanding pastor, husband and father, whose main function seems to be to describe his congregation: "But the very way she restrained her hair indicated how long and wavy it would be when she released it. Everything about the woman was undulant, the gentle turn of her arms or legs, her full pink lips, her high, pillowy breasts. . . . She was a woman of luxurious flesh. But she was also a woman of licentious flesh." The woman he is describing is Liza Howard, the beautiful young widow of the town millionaire who feels ostracized by the town and so in a spirit of revenge takes most of the men in town to bed, most notably the handsome, college-age son of a prominent family: "I learned long ago . . . the most important lesson of my life: being a whore is a way of being a nun. It is a way of taking on the social trappings of isolation and exemption from responsibility. No one can really touch you: and you can hurt no one . . ."
Then there is Judith, the prim, frigid housewife and aspiring socialite who pops Valium to get her through the days, and nights. Thoroughly self-centered and unsympathetic, she spends much of her time plotting how to advance her position in Londonton society and judging others for not meeting her "standards." What Judy does not know, of course, is that husband Ron, a wealthy contractor, is embezzling money from a city building project.
And Londonton would not be complete without Suzanna, the divorce' in love with her female sociology professor. They form what seems to be the perfect marriage, complete with profundities of this nature: "Lust between women was of the same quality as lust between the sexes . . . Lesbian love was no more violent or gentle than heterosexual love; it is the individual who makes the difference, not the gender."
These characters don't act, they just have interior monologues. Chief among the masters of the monologue, and the character with whom the author seems most sympathetic, is Mandy, the 18-year-old daughter of Leigh, who is considered eccentric because she is an artist and dresses informally and refuses to be paired off with anyone. Mandy, extremely mature for her years, wants to be a sculptor. When she falls in love with Peter Taylor's 17-year-old son, she is full of convincing and wise reasons why they should not wait to get married. She also has religious experiences that make "the common stuff of life seem suddenly precious, miraculous," and believes that these "crazy visions" are necessary "now and then in my life if I'm ever going to be a good artist . . . because it opens up new worlds for me to work from." It is Mandy's and Michael's wedding that ends the novel.
And not a moment too soon.
I suppose, if one had nothing better to do and were in a certain mood, "Bodies and Souls" might go down like pudding. But don't think it's chocolate mousse just because the label says it is.