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 One's sexual nature and expression, inextricably bound up with one's creative destiny, can, when denied, result in a death-in- life. This cautionary conviction is underscored by novelist and critic Grumbach (the memoir Fifty Days of Solitude, 1994, etc.) in a multi-edged tale about four withered young lives. In the summer of 1929, Caleb (12) and Kate (10) Flowers live with their widowed, deaf mother in a large veranda-ed house in seaside Far Rockaway, N.Y. Then visitors arrive--bossy, 13-year-old Roslyn Hellman and timid Lionel Schwartz, 19--and soon Roslyn is leading games, including one disastrous (and foreshadowing) attempt to test the Book of Knowledge account of the behavior of lemmings. It's also that summer when Caleb and Kate, intrigued by their mirror-image intimacy, experiment sexually. The narrative then turns to another summer when Roslyn, now a bristly young teenager hooked on movies and rebel politics, is at a Catskill all-girls' camp, sneering at her lumpen peers and collecting material for her writing career. (Grumbach's reading of some earnest team efforts to regiment recreation in the early days of summer camps is both funny and touching.) Roslyn has a first serious crush on a counselor (handily rejected); then a few years later Caleb is at college, determined to deny Kate any hint of their childhood sexual games, and theatrically alone--until he meets Lionel. Their love is devouring, absolute. But like Roslyn (whose dreams of accomplishment began to wane after a stint in the wartime WAVES and another dose of the double standard), and like rejected, sin-ridden Kate, Caleb will make a socially acceptable choice. Only Lionel, by his death in the army, escapes the others' long, dry shrivelling of the soul: ``It is true of all human beings that they are dualities...herein lies all the bloody warfare in the person, to be who we are and not what we have been made.'' Immaculate in prose and tone: one of Grumbach's best.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-393-03770-3
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1995


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