With its echoes of T.S. Eliot, the title of this first novel seems at first glance particularly suited to its author, the former proprietor of Washington's late, lamented bookstore, Folio Books. Almost pretentious in its announcement of ambition, such a title promises at the very least a poetic meditation on the relationship between past and present, if not a Post-Structuralist fiction of presence and absence. What it is, in fact, is a little like a beautiful dessert that turns out to be all air on the inside. A conventional romantic novel, "Memory and Desire" is a pleasant enough way to spend a few hours that nevertheless leaves one feeling dissatisfied at its missed opportunities, even a little cross at having been cheated, as though the cook forgot the filling.
Set partly in Washington, the novel tells the story of Victoria Valenkova Ensear, a young woman who writes restaurant reviews for a third-rate newspaper called Capital Roundabout but really wants to be a painter. The mother of two children, Tia, as she is called, is married to a status-seeking psychoanalyst named Sloan Ensear (the family maid habitually and prophetically mispronounces his name as "Dr. Snear"). Vaguely unhappy with her life, Tia feels that it is the embodiment of her grandmother's most withering criticism: "How ordinary."
Of course, Tia's childhood, as we learn through a series of flashbacks, was anything but ordinary. Orphaned as a child, she was raised by her wealthy Russian e'migre' grandmother, the imperious Helena Valenkova, an artist who frequently sheltered other European refugees in her elegant New York apartment or the spacious summer house in Maine. It was there, at Easter Cove, that Tia, age 17, fell in love with the handsome Ivan MacLeod, the much older and much married archeologist son of her grandmother's closest friends. Needless to say, Gran, for what seem to me very good reasons, did not approve, and their tempestuous, on-again/off-again affair survived neither her objections nor Ivan's more practical concerns of work and family. Tia married the more persistent Sloan and settled down to her "ordinary" life. Just as she is becoming bored enough to consider an affair with the aging stepfather of a friend (dare one suggest that she is looking for a father?), she is summoned to Maine, where Gran is dying. There, too, of course, is Ivan, still in love with her. What, Dear Reader, will Tia do?
The answer, I think, is not difficult to imagine, although it does not come without some struggle and the obligatory time spent "finding herself" as a painter. The problem is that Tia, to put it bluntly, is a ninny. Her dying grandmother tells her, "You never understood how strong you are, Tia. It's the tree that can bend in the storm, not the old oak that stands rigid in the wind that survives. You have so much of me in you, for better or worse," but the evidence doesn't support this assessment. Even in the end Tia's choices seem subtly dictated by her grandmother. It's not that perfectly wonderful people don't do quite stupid things -- we all know they do -- it's just that in novels, characters need to be drawn with sufficient complexity for us to feel compassion and understanding. The circumstances of Tia's life and of her grandmother's offer opportunities for explanation that Dean never satisfactorily explores.
It is difficult to believe that anyone could spend more than five minutes with Sloan Ensear, surely one of the most pompous and unredeeming boors in recent fiction, and Tia's marriage to him never seems truly believable. Ivan is no prize either, always dashing off to archeological digs and expecting Tia to follow, not to mention his seducing a 17-year-old girl or marrying a rich woman because her money will finance his career. Finishing the novel, one remembers the comment of Tia's friend Jenny when Tia expressed gratitude to Sloan for helping her "escape" her grandmother's house: "Why does it have to be a man? Why can't you just leave? You've got to learn to use other escape routes."
Take it to Rehoboth, if you like. Just think of it as cotton candy on the boardwalk and don't expect any nourishment.