by Janet Hobhouse
The irony of Janet Hobhouse’s death in 1991 is that in this, her final novel, the author has written a bildungsroman of a woman who grows up to become a writer and then is stricken with cancer. Helen Lowell is born in New York City to a Jewish German mother and a British father, whom she does not meet until age 16, when she visits England. By then she has been shunted from one New York apartment to another by her vain, love-junkie mother, who has barely made enough money as a gal Friday to support them. It’s no wonder then that after Helen arrives in England, she decides to prepare for the A level examinations and eventually gains admittance to Oxford.
While at the university, Helen forms her first relationships with men and discovers that being raised by an unreliable mother and being torn between two continents and two parents makes it difficult for her to form trusting alliances. So troubled is she by her problem with intimacy that Helen is forced In seek professional help.
The atmospheres of New York in the ’50s and Oxford in the ’60s are indelibly rendered in The Furies, which ends on a somewhat tentative note in the 1980s. We learn in a foreword to the novel that Hobhouse was in her final stages of revising her manuscript when she died and that her publisher has chosen to excise less than polished material, using three-dot ellipses to mark what has been omitted. Yet even though the novel loses the luster of revision as it progresses, it gains by taking on even greater immediacy and, ultimately, becomes a raw elegy to an unconventional childhood. (Double-day, $22.50)