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In this exceptional first novel McDermott explores the mistier deeps of women's love for husbands and lovers--with a tensile prose reminiscent of Anne Tyler and with Mary Gordon's uncluttered focus on some mystic primacies. Elizabeth is ""editor"" at Vista Books, a vanity publisher, where the unpublishable pay sizable fees to have their ""humble dreams"" made manifest in print; an artist of empathic listening and the siren lie, Elizabeth lures authors to contract for the printing of such masterpieces as ""Gouged of Womanhood: Poems of Two Mastectomies."" And her newest author is boyish, well-heeled Tupper Daniels, who has written a novel about a Southern bigamist (there's a clever sample of his shyly derivative prose)--a novel, however, without an ending. So Elizabeth muses on the proper fadeout: would this bigamist decide one day to stay with one woman? Or would he continue to come and go (""on government business"")--as Elizabeth's late father did (or so she always suspected)? Elizabeth and Tupper become lovers, Manhattan-style--the candles-and-plants restaurants, river gazing, the Long Island weekend--while they search on different levels for an ending, for the ways of faithful/ faithless lovers. Tupper attempts to walk a straight line through Elizabeth's deliberately brambly family history (""This strange man, unraveling her life. . . giving it meaning"")--and, like her Vista authors, she's aroused by the lovely lie of personal significance. But Elizabeth remains skeptical and bemused about love. What could cause her friend Joanna to weep when her wedding day was over, to say--""I feel like somebody died""? Why did Elizabeth's mother, leaving a respectable Catholic widowhood on Long Island, move in with a lover in Maine--offering him nothing but her love for a dead husband? And why did Elizabeth herself leave Bill, the one man she had adored from afar, then stalked and won? The answers have something to do with the prickling, anxious love for a chimeric father; with the childhood image of God, the Perfect Husband; with the all-consuming myth of perfect love ""in which [the real lover] is best left in shadow, left imagined or remembered or told."" And finally, inevitably, Elizabeth sheds Tupper for Vista, ""that hall of mirrors and secrets. . . where she is the mistress of hopeless causes, of eternal optimists. . . of her art."" A beautifully toned and textured novel--with brief moments of crackling humor--about perishable lives and loves. . . and about the lies that can sometimes redeem them.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Random House