RAMEAU'S NIECE by Cathleen Schine


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 A pretentious tale of deluded love and lust in Manhattan's indulged academe--in a third from Schine (Alice in Bed, 1983; To the Birdhouse, 1990). Margaret Nathan--a historian who can't remember anything and the author of the surprising bestseller The Anatomy of Madame de Montigny--is hailed as brilliant by deconstructionists, feminists, and ordinary readers, none of whom has actually read her book. All of which sounds like a promising start for a comic novel of manners that will wittily skewer current literary icons and political shibboleths--except that Margaret, happily married to Edward, a Columbia English professor who constantly quotes poetry, is instead trapped in a story defined by an idea: a heavy, literary 18th- century idea based on her discovery of an obscure Enlightenment manuscript called Rameau's Niece, a not-so-subtle play on the actual Rameau's Nephew by Diderot--a philosophical work in the form of a dialogue between a lecherous philosopher and his beautiful female pupil. As Margaret translates the work--a pastiche of filched quotes--she's not only seduced by what she's reading but increasingly bored with Edward, finally deciding that ``the desire to know really is desire'' and that what she needs is a new lover. It's a decision that leads to embarrassing encounters with her teeth-obsessed dentist; with a kindly Belgian salesman who merely wants to give her the latest in hi-fi equipment; and with a friend of a former college roommate, who may be having an affair with husband Edward. This should make for high stylish comedy, of course, but it doesn't, as Margaret, the relentless theoretician, now back with Edward, recalls the philosopher's other advice: ``...in the end our truest opinions are not the ones we have changed, but those to which we have most often returned.'' Smug and smirky in-jokes without much bite and less humor, regaled by and for characters who well deserve their narrow, complacent lives.

Pub Date: April 2nd, 1993
ISBN: 0-395-65490-4
Page count: 280pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1993


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