DESIRE by Amy Wallace


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A decidedly odd, quasi-surrealistic first novel--from the coauthor (with father Irving) of The Two (1978)--that concerns the emotional journey of a young gemologist whose special area of expertise is pearls. For Lily Van Velsen, that skill is inherited, since she's the last in a line of gifted pearl-doctors whose task is to peel layers off ""blisters"" until they finally arrive at the ultimate pearl--a dangerous endeavor, because those without ""sight"" sometimes ruin invaluable pearls by peeling one layer too far. Lily's engaged to the manager of Van Velsen's, the spiritless Alan Purdue, but violently drawn to the womanizing sculptor Johnny Penthe. The other man in her life is her aged great-uncle Mordecai, from whom Lily learned her craft. He's an opium addict with a collection of letters outlining the Van Velsen family history, which he allows his grandniece to read. These explain the curse attached to a remarkable pearl called the Moon of Celebes, which Mordecai owns but doesn't trust himself to cut. The curse has inflicted itself upon the family, for Mordecai is a mined man, who many years ago fell fatally in love with his brother's wife. From the letters Lily will also learn that her great-uncle is actually her grandfather. Somehow, his death gives her the strength to cut the Moon of Celebes herself, break with both Johnny and Alan, and move out into the light. There are lots of fascinating aspects here, especially the tales from the Van Velsen past. But the novel is so mired in the emotional quagmire that surrounds Lily, and so otherwise contextless, that it's hard to make sense of and, in the end, claustrophobically jejune.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1990
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin