July 09, 1990 12:00 PM

by Dani Shapiro

Lucy Chaya Greenburg, narrator of this poised if not profound first novel, and Carolyn Ward are roommates at Smith College. Lucy, who’s in thrall to Carolyn, is the beautiful only child of a well-known, devout New York Jewish family; Carolyn is the beautiful Shalimar-scented daughter of a Connecticut family where money flows freely and nothing gets talked about.

Almost once a week, Carolyn disappears from campus for the night and shows up the next day looking as though she’d been on the losing side in a war. Sometimes, she disappears for longer, returning with a fresh tan, new clothes, maybe a new piece of jewelry, still guarding her secrets. “Who is it?” Lucy wants to know. “You can tell me.”

Carolyn’s attitude on men is spelled out as Lucy, needing an abortion, turns to her roommate for money (from a shoe box full of $20 bills) and emotional support.

“It’s us against them, Lucy. You must remember that,” she says. Lucy says she will remember. “She will teach me,” Lucy thinks. “I will listen to her. I will learn.” Carolyn is by no means Lucy’s only teacher. She also receives instruction from Ben Broadhurst, Carolyn’s Donald Trump-ish stepfather, with whom Lucy has an affair—at what seems to be Carolyn’s arranging.

Playing with Fire is most effective, though, when it focuses on the relationship between Lucy and Carolyn: “Her hands are Rubinstein’s, Heifetz’s, Ashkenazy’s. She plays me. I am a Steinway, a Stradivarius. Her foot is on the soft pedal, her fingers barely brush the keys. They are sure, her fingers. They memorized me long ago. They read me by sight. Nothing is too difficult. Nothing is impossible.” Lucy’s relationship with Broadhurst is more problematic, largely because Ben is more literary cyborg—”He kissed me with all the urgency of a man who has not touched his wife in years”—than believable character. It also strains the reader’s credulity that Lucy can’t figure out the identity of Carolyn’s mysterious lover, and the novel’s contrived, bathetic ending tries the reader’s patience.

Even so, at her best, Shapiro, a former actress, has written a novel that, in illuminating the problems of coming-of-age, generates nearly as much light as heat. (Doubleday, $17.95)

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