"The Skating Party" belongs to that class of books that focuses on a tightly circumscribed physical setting and relies heavily on the author's powers of observation: characters are placed in a particular situation to see what happens.
The best recent example, Isabel Colgate's "The Shooting Party," portrays the complex interactions among a group of wealthy Edwardians secluded for a weekend at a country estate in the autumn of 1913. But almost anything might fly: "The Rugby Party," "The Junior League Party," "The Democratic Party." Unfortunately, Marina Warner's "The Skating Party" fails to live up to the publisher's claims of "a picture of British grace and style." Rather, it seems more in league with our own national phenomenon, "The Tupperware Party" or, anyway, something suggestive of plastics and domesticity, perhaps the American mid-day soap opera.
Although the setting for this novel is a wintry skate down the frozen Floe to the quaint English town of Hartbridge, the analogy to soap opera is not inappropriate. Take, for instance, the dialogue that finds Michael Lovage, university professor and host of the outing, greeting the fair Katy, his student and paramour. Michael has inquired about her use of certain pills she finds expedient during exam time:
" 'I don't do it for fun.'
"She looked down and skuffed the ice surface with the spike on her toe tip.
" 'It makes me ill to think of it,' said Michael.
" 'You drink, don't you?'
" 'It's not the same.'
" 'If you weren't so shocked I might find it easier to stop. The look on your face is part of the thrill.'
" 'You treat me as if I was your father, or some authority figure.'
" 'Well you are.'
" 'Katy, Katy.' Michael pressed his fingers into her thin arm until he was encircling the bone, bird-like frail under her thick layers of sleeve. 'I care about you so much, please don't treat yourself so badly.'
" 'I don't want people to care about me.'
" 'Don't say such things. It's cruel, to yourself, and to . . . me.' "
Soaps deal with proverbially real people in rather stark ways; if they are not very subtle, at least they have the attraction of clarity. And like a soap, "The Skating Party" presents an excruciatingly contemporary milieu inhabited by recognizably contemporary types.
The cast includes a predictable roster: Michael is in the mean clutches of a mid-life crisis, and on the side teaches anthropology and ardently campaigns against nuclear arms; Viola, his wife, a mother and professor of art history, is a modern Second Stage woman, enlightened in gender politics but ambivalent in action, ultimately outraged and capitulating. Others on the ice include Timmo, their 17-year-old son, a boy "into" rock music and the "testing of limits" who has a special, transparently Oedipal relationship with his mother; Katy, waifish, bereft of father and looking for a surrogate, a sort of English version of the Valley Girl; and to complete the symmetry there is a venerable university don who pines for the old days, and an affable gay, "My dear . . . I know about narcissism, believe me."
Something interesting might be done with these caricatures, but Warner instead dresses "The Skating Party" in the most pretentious kind of clothes. Quotations from Great Works embellish the title pages of chapters, and she drags in what literary jargonauts call the "mythic method." This device, as fashioned by the high modernists, draws a parallel between contemporary and ancient worlds in an attempt to achieve some semblance of order in the chaos of our lives.
The ancient world Warner parallels to her story enters through Michael's ethnographic field study of a primitive tribe and Viola's investigation of a Renaissance fresco cycle. As used here, however, it is as if Joyce had tucked the entire, unexpurgated text of Homer's "Odyssey" into the middle of "Ulysses," and then taken visible pains to show just exactly how they match up.
In these parallel stories--that of the Palau ritual designed to break the spell of a romance that threatens the social order of the tribe; and of the fresco that depicts a mother's entreaty to her son to intervene between father and concubine, the son's compliance and his consequent exile, rejected by both parents--the author gives us foreshadowing laid on with a trowel. The plot of "The Skating Party" can be inferred by simply making the obvious character substitutions. But foreshadowing is not the point; rather, it is that fiction cannot rely on things mythic to breathe life and meaning into a contemporary story, or to render the characters complex and believable.
What makes this novel especially disappointing is that Marina Warner has written two rightly acclaimed works of nonfiction, "Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary" and "Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism."
"The Skating Party" is not an unintelligent work; there are scores of interesting ideas in it. But Warner is so taken up with ideas that she forgets an important requirement of fiction--that ideas be given life.