by Isabel Colegate ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 1, 1984
Colegate's more recent fiction--Orlando King, The Shooting Party--combines decorous psychological drama with socio-historical themes; these three early novels (19581962) are less ambitious domestic tales, largely preoccupied with British class-conflict on the tonier levels. The Blackmailer is the least well-executed but the most intriguingly conceived of the three--exploring the odd love/hate relationship between an ill-born, envious blackmailer and his semi-posh victim. The villain: bitter young solicitor (and would-be M.P.) Baldwin Reeves, who knows that blueblooded Korean War hero Anthony Lane was really a coward and traitor. His victim: Lane's young widow Judith, editor in a small publishing office--who pays Reeves off in order to protect her aristocratic in-laws from scandal. But Reeves soon wants more than money, indulging in cruel power-plays; Judith feels strangely bound to her torturer--whose vulnerability is soon exposed; and eventually Reeves almost succeeds in parlaying their folie Ã deux into a social leap upward. Unfortunately, however, despite the seductive premise and charmingly offbeat touches, Colegate never finds the right tone for this ironic anecdote--wavering between Jamesian moodiness and black-comedy, with a clumsy statement of theme at the close. (""'What we feel for each other is really a passion for power,' said Judith. 'We want to destroy each other by making the other fall in love with us. . .'"") A Man of Power is far more assured, if far more familiar--with echoes of Maugham, Ford, The Great Gatsby, and many others. The narrator is very young Vanessa Cowper, daughter of much-divorced Lady Essex, a high-living interior decorator. The man of the title is rags-to-riches tycoon Lewis Ogden--who abandons wife Jean (a former secretary) while seeking social standing in a liaison with Lady Essex; he'll be disillusioned, however, by upper-class amorality--as will innocent Vanessa, whose genuine, mutual love for Ogden is finally shattered by poor, dear Jean's suicide. And The Great Occasion is the most conventional of the novels here--following one family through a few troublesome years. Gabriel Dobson, industrialist/widower, is the well-meaning, ineffectual, increasingly bitter father of five daughters: proper Penelope, married to slimy politician Ham; plain, neurotic Susan, treated like an infant by her Wing Commander husband; beautiful Angel, thwarted in her love for an impotent Lord, settling for marriage to nasty Roger; artistic, rebellious Charlotte, who marries a bohemian painter and dies young from cancer; and pre-teen Selina, who's unhappy at boarding-school (sadism, crushes). . . but looks forward to the future a few years later. Like the other two stories, this is uneven work--lacking a central focus, sometimes slipping into high-class soap opera. But Colegate's modest strengths--neat psychological details, coolly literate narration, dry humor--are on ample display throughout. So devotees of low-key, classy British fiction will find this a welcome bargain package, with (aside from the whole class obsession) only a few obviously dated elements.
Pub Date: April 1, 1984
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1984
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