August 29, 1988 12:00 PM

by Susan Isaacs

“In 1940, when I was 31 and an old maid, while the whole world waited for war, I fell in love with John Berringer.” So begins Isaacs’ two-thirds-terrific fourth novel. The narrator is Linda Voss, a very smart, very efficient, very funny, reasonably attractive legal secretary from Queens. She is a particularly desirable functionary to her boss, John Berringer, partly because she speaks German fluently. About Berringer: The girls in the secretarial pool spend a good part of their lunch hour trying to zero in on the precise color of his eyes. They’re blue like twilight, suggests someone. No, says someone else, they’re blue like a clear lake but with a funny kind of depth, like on a cloudy day. No, insists yet another, they’re blue like pansies. And they haven’t even started on his blond hair and movie star physique. “John Berringer,” notes his secretary, “made poets out of stenographers.” Linda’s dreary life—caring for her alcoholic mother and spending Sunday afternoons with a fellow secretary—changes when John’s perfect wife, Nan, leaves him. The lovesick Miss Voss and the heartsick Mr. Berringer, “the pride of the Ivy League,” begin an affair long on passion but short on meaningful conversation. “That’s when I remembered the advice the sob sisters give to girls,” muses Linda, who gamely attempts discussion with J.B. “Never ask a question that has yes or no for an answer. Instead, ask him about his interests. I already knew two of his favorites. The law. And the interest he’d shown me the night before…. What’s your favorite international trade agreement? And how about: That thing with your tongue—did you ever try it on Nan?” When Linda gets pregnant, John does the honorable thing and marries her; after Linda miscarries, John does the dishonorable thing by starting up again with Nan, now remarried. When Linda becomes a secretary with the fledgling OSS and volunteers to become a spy in Berlin, Shining Through begins to lose the gleam of its first 300 pages. Since which side won World War II has been pretty well publicized, since the reader can assume that a first-person narrator will be there to finish the story and since the writing begins to get didactic and clumsy, there is not nearly the interest in Linda’s career as a spy as there was in her involvement with the unworthy Berringer. And Isaacs is a bit cavalier about the blue-eyed golden boy, unworthy or not. After Linda goes off to Berlin, John disappears from the action. Isaacs, author of Compromising Positions, is also a bit cavalier about plot; at novel’s end, without really preparing the reader, she has Linda fall in love with, well, no point in spoiling the surprise. This is all disconcerting, though not enough to totally spoil the pleasure Isaacs generates with Linda Voss. She is a plucky, sardonic, truly wonderful character. (Harper & Row, $18.95)

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