Picks and Pans Review: Secret Anniversaries
by Scott Spencer
Secret Anniversaries is an easy and occasionally involving read, but it’s not a very good book. While Spencer is a talented writer, his new novel’s subject matter—a young woman coming of age on the eve of World War II while working for a Congressman who secretly supports the Nazis—is hardly something he seems to have been born to write about.
In his best-known book, Endless Love, a precursor to the late ’80s fascination with dangerously unrequited passions, Spencer rendered a teenage boy’s obsessive love in a direct, comprehensible manner. His last book, Waking the Dead, was a romantic and political thriller with an intricate plot that examined one man’s ascent in the public sector as it collided and connected with his own private life.
In Secret Anniversaries, Spencer seems incapable of setting a plausible scenario, nor does he plumb the depths of his characters’ internal lives very effectively.
Caitlin Van Fleet, who is the Congressman’s clerk, has about as much complexity as the heroine of a Harlequin romance, although she would never fit into that genre since a good part of this book deals with her lesbian love affair with a co-worker. She also bears a son by a man who, it is intimated, might have homosexual tendencies of his own. There is also the suggestion that Caitlin’s father expressed some of his own incestuous feelings for his daughter. (A reader has to keep checking the cover to make sure this isn’t a new book by that young master of the sexual variants David Leavitt.)
Spencer’s characters’ sexual preferences do not seem all that relevant to the plot, unless perhaps he’s trying to show that there were gay men and women even before there was gay pride. Then too, while the novelist has at times shown himself to be a true authority on the complexities of heterosexual love, he seems out of his depth in the sapphic realm.
Perhaps all this wouldn’t matter if Secret Anniversaries weren’t written in the kind of sentimental, goopy language authors tend to revert to when they have no real knowledge of (and perhaps no real interest in) the lives they are describing.
Spencer also displays a tendency toward such hyperbolic lines as, “She had sixty more minutes in her life not to be in mourning.” And he shows an even more annoying tendency toward condescension: “She was one of those women from the recent past who could have her heart moved by oratory.”
Spencer calls one of Caitlin’s feelings “only a persistent, persuasive abstraction,” which is something more than can be said for Secret Anniversaries. It is just plain abstraction. (Knopf, $18.95)