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In The Dining Room and other plays, Gurney has shown his deep knowledge of--and deep ambivalence about--the fading upper-class, American-WASP social tradition: he can be both satiric and sentimental within a single vignette. Here, however, in a short, airy, almost fable-like novel, the emphasis is very much on sentiment--as a middle-aged blueblood recollects, and tries to recreate, the semi-glorious days of his postwar, society-scene adolescence. In Buffalo, N.Y., the Downtown Rehabilitation Committee announces plans for the refurbishment of the old George Washington Hotel--to be celebrated by a multi-ethnic ""Winterfest"" in December. But this news comes as a shock to 50-ish socialites Cooper Jones and Lucy Dunbar, who vividly recall when, circa 1948, the George Washington ballroom was the site of the annual winter ""Snow Ball""--an outrageous ritual of ""consumption and display,"" but wonderful too. So Cooper and Lucy start planning for a resurrection of the long-abandoned Ball. (""Goddamit, I come from an old country, too! We had our costumes and customs and convictions, and it's high time we trotted them out?') And they even vow to bring back the ballroom stars of those teenage-dancing days--rich deb Kitty Price (now a Florida matron) and ambitious poor-boy Jack Daley (now the lieutenant-governor of Indiana). Meanwhile, flashbacks fill in the 1940s-society atmosphere, the obligatory dancing-classes, the rich-girl/poor-boy tale of Kitty and Jack: they danced sublimely together, making everything ""meet and right and wonderful""--but when they decided to quit college and become a professional dance-team (!), both families took forceful action to separate the couple forever. Meanwhile, too, Cooper--less than happy with wife Liz, a serious social-worker--drifts into a brief affair with kindred soul Lucy. And eventually they succeed in luring both Kitty and Jack back to Buffalo, to recreate their greatest dance routine--even though Jack's nasty wife throws a jealous fit. . . and even though Kitty is terminally ill: ""There they were, gliding over this resilient old floor. . . . It was as if they knew, and were inviting everyone else to know, that all their dips and spins and breaks and turns were simply bright bubbles on a dark surface of sin, chaos, and death--and the best they could do, the best anyone could do, was to put a good face on things and dance."" Kitty's fatal illness--worthy of a Love Boat episode--nearly pushes this delicate confection over the edge into maudlin goo. And readers who relished the satiric bite in Gurney's previous fiction, Entertaining Strangers (1977), will be disappointed. For the most part, however, this is a sweet yet knowing puff of sentimental social-comedy--effectively nostalgic but clear-eyed, too, about the inevitability (and the benefits) of changing times.

Pub Date: Jan. 11th, 1984
Publisher: Arbor House