NATURAL VICTIMS by Isabel Eberstadt


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Eberstadt seems torn in this first novel--wanting to write an ironic Jamesian book of middle-aged manners and growth on the one hand, a faintly whimsical psycho-melodrama on the other. And the result is an uneven, overlong, but stylishly intriguing debut--one that, in its first half, shows an impressive ability to maintain dramatic tension through a leisurely, minimally eventful narrative. ""Sis"" Melmore, 50-ish, the famously chic and enormously wealthy widow of tycoon Jim, arrives in Paris to find her addled daughter Sarah. . . who--as we learn through sporadic chunks of flashback--has never been the same since her adored brother Jimmy went down the dropout road to drug-death. (Sarah blamed her father, who doted on her but was cruelly demanding of Jimmy.) After one brief street-encounter, however, Sis entirely loses track of the obviously unhinged, scarecrow-like Sarah; so, out of her depth with life's nitty-gritty, Sis turns for help to her older, Paris-dwelling sister Harriet, a no-nonsense spinster who's ambivalent about this sudden attention from flighty Sis. (""How was she going to gel along with someone who planted radishes on the bias, kissed her chauffeur and had 'seashore' jewelry?"") Meanwhile, as Sis and Harriet pursue a few clues to Sarah's supposed whereabouts (via some political types Sarah used to bang out with), we follow Sarah to her actual whereabouts: she has been taken in by enigmatic Jack Straw, a handsome concept-artist-cum-faith-healer--who shares a flat with a bisexual gigolo, nurses Sarah back to relative calm through guru-ing and dream therapy (did Sarah really kill her father?). . . but secretly harbors an obsessive love for Sarah's famously beautiful mother. And eventually, after the whole sad story of Sarah's paranoid disintegration has been aired, Sis' search for Sarah will indeed lead her to Jack Straw--with instantaneous fireworks, ""heavenly"" sex that briefly convinces Sis to grab Jack for herself. (""Ail her life she had been trying to please someone else. . . ."") But it is Harriet who sacrifices her hie in the murky finale (a ritual do with Sarah scheduled as cult victim)--while Sis heads home with Sarah. . . and without Jack. Eberstadt tries to tell too many stories al once here: Sarah's uncompelling case-history and the fey Parisian-underworld material too often crowd out the engaging central portraits. But the high-life detail is gorgeously nuanced, Sis and Harriet are a finely contrasted (if sketchily resolved) duo--and, with all its flaws, this is fiction of unusual charm, intelligence, and ambition.

Pub Date: April 20th, 1983
Publisher: Knopf