DAUGHTER OF THE SWAN By Joan Juliet Buck Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 336 pp. $17.95
"Daughter of the Swan" has the feel of silk brocade, mahogany, peonies in a Chinese vase: rich, heavy and deliberately artful. It is the intense, if somewhat breathless, portrait of a family whose members practice passion as an esthetic and suffer the consequences of obsessive love.
Florence Ellis is a young woman who distinguishes herself from the ordinary. She grows up in Paris with her American father Jacob, a homosexual dealer in antique art, and in London with his exquisite sister Julia, who has the hint of one great love in her past. Florence adores Julia, and longs for her own great love, who "would have wings ... would be a God in disguise," like the image of Zeus rising from Leda on the Roman ring her father gives her, or the photo of a classical Morpheus she hangs over her bed.
Beauty and sensuality are essential to these characters, and art frequently serves as a metaphor for their passion. In Jacob's shop, Florence thinks, "A statue went from masterpiece to curiosity in one second when its nose broke off, while the small bronze pins and thick little pots carried on unharmed, safe in their lack of distinction ... From which I gleaned the notion that the beautiful is doomed and the common survives."
Julia's accidental death precipitates ruin for Jacob and Florence. Stunned by grief, she flees home to a life at once ascetic and promiscuous. Then she encounters Felix, a gorgeous drifter with the "closed, perfect smile" of a classical statue, her "destiny." Their brief, intense affair ends in anger and tragedy. Jacob foolishly borrows money, and sells forged art, to buy an Etruscan effigy, also lured by its haunting smile, losing his business and his reputation.
As the novel unfolds, Felix's powerful connection to all three is revealed, as well as the secret of their past. There is the sense that fate requires such losses from people drawn, as Jacob says, to "irresistible temptation," and linked by their desire for beauty, regardless of conventional standards.
Every emotion is heightened in their story: grief, physical longing, remorse, self-denial. The language of passion, particularly, verges on the ornate and consciously lofty. "What we could share was silent ..." thinks Florence of Felix's love, "... the intensity of drugs, the taste of fruit, the feeling of each other's bodies. I looked for things to touch and feel and eat and smell, so that my room could be a holy place, an extension of our pleasure ... I touched fabrics with my eyes closed ... until I found a panne velvet that was like his skin, a suede that was like the soles of his feet ..." These people do not shop at Safeway.
Yet this world of uncommon feeling has an undeniable appeal, and the characters are not cliche's. Florence has an admirable single-mindedness -- she loves deeply and she mourns deeply -- with an interesting touch of the neurotic and naive. In the novel's second half, she withdraws to a numb existence, living in New York with a man who shares the "certainty of a chance missed, or something broken in the past that the future will not mend." Their American friends, who talk only of sexual conquests, politics and preventing cancer, are an adept contrast to the elegant Parisian beginning.
When Florence's old friend Sylvie, also connected to Felix, arrives in New York, memories of her old life revive. Like the grand love stories of the past, the end of the novel continues to explore passion, in a mode colored by suffering and maturity. Unlike those stories, it offers its heroine the modern woman's magic possibilities of choice, self-fulfillment and romantic rebirth.
The reviewer is a Washington writer and critic.