May 08, 1989 12:00 PM

by Susanna Moore

All right, gentlemen, make room for this unsettling novel on your shelf devoted to books about understanding the opposite sex—the one with Fear of Flying, Smart Women, Foolish Choices and How to Pick Up Girls.

The novel, Moore’s second, is about Mamie Clarke, who moves from Hawaii to New York as she nears her 21st birthday. Facing the multiple allures and tedious hypocrisies of urban life, she tries to put herself in context, even though she never seems quite sure what the context should be. But her obsession is defining her relationship to men.

She finally meets a slightly older man who’s a dream come true—a good lover, patient, funny, understanding. Most of the time, though, her attitudes seem conditioned by such experiences as having been fondled by her family’s Japanese gardener in Hawaii when she was 12, or, in a more recent trauma, being raped by a man she meets when she’s trying to find her irresponsible, masochistic sister, Claire, who follows her to New York.

Moore’s male characters too often seem like props, from the sisters’ loving, distant father to Alder, Mamie’s dream man. Her women are vividly drawn—and more disturbing. Mamie deals with her terror of men by withdrawing; Claire offers herself up as a sacrifice. Neither behaves or thinks in a way likely to lead to a reasonable man-woman arrangement. Facing the frail advances of Felix, a dress designer who hires her as a model, Mamie thinks that “the mistake of feminism was its refusal to admit the superior, undeniably superior, strength of men—not economic or political strength, that was another thing altogether—but the simple fact that at any moment, Felix, for all of his idle, silly talk about princes and princesses, could lay Alder’s Delacroix book on the little French table, reach over and snap her narrow wrist in two.”

Moore, who grew up in Hawaii and lives in New York, verges on slipping off into a flaming Krantz-Steel story about an ambitious young woman’s passions. However, she uses sex not to decorate her story but to illustrate arguments about women’s feelings of inferiority—feelings of residual humanity might be more accurate. She can be biting, noting, for instance, that the girls’ social-leaping Manhattan aunt has “bought a table at a benefit to raise money to restore opera costumes damaged by warehouse rats.” And despite her obsessions with gender and sex, she still speculates on other aspects of modern life, such as the problem of remembering just exactly what did happen, when, and with whom: “[Mamie] questioned Claire ceaselessly about the past, not because she required pure information, nor to reinforce her own cool, fastidious memory, but because the variations in the story thrilled her…. The constant surprise of this freshly created past confirmed Mamie’s suspicions of her own individuality, and the individuality of others. It gave her, too, the beginning of an idea: memory, happily, was not the same thing as truth.” (Doubleday, $17.95)

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