NELLIE WITHOUT HUGO by Janet Hobhouse

NELLIE WITHOUT HUGO

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The ups and downs, pros and cons of marriage (or commitments in general)--as seen through the Manhattan-based lives of three well-bred sisters and their much-divorced mother. Louisa, still eye-catchingly handsome at 60, may seem a bit desperate now with her lovers coming and going--but undoubtedly she ""had been loved."" Eldest daughter Rebecca, on the other hand, is a dynamic 38-year-old loner--a successful lawyer--and she's debating whether to try marriage at last, with psychiatrist Robert (a superb lover yet imperfect in many ways). Youngest daughter Sara, meanwhile, has just arrived at her mother's door after a brief stab at wedlock with adulterous Ricky, who just suddenly stopped loving her; and, settling into a semi-breakdown, she first wants Ricky back, then wants to stay single forever, with an undivorced Ricky as a shield: ""She could have her husband and her loneliness too, an embarras de richesses!"" But Hobhouse's more-or-less central figure here is middle daughter Nellie, 30, whose British writer-husband Hugo has gone off to Africa for a few weeks--during which time Nellie allows her first lover, Connaly, to re-ignite their teenage affair: ""It was annoying that Hugo had left her in the lurch this way, so that she had to deal with men and their strangeness once more. And then she wondered if she hadn't perhaps married Hugo to protect herself from them, and so she wouldn't have to go through these things--long forgotten as they were--the humiliations and terrors of love."" Nellie continues to muse in this vein all through the affair, reconsidering her detached attitude toward her marriage. And, in an intriguing subplot-parallel, there's Nellie's research for a MOMA catalogue on the Abstract Expressionists: she's working against the museum's formalist approach, insisting on a biographical frame-of-reference (Franz Kline, she learns, was ""one hell of a third base man""); so the flesh-and-blood, emotional commitment of those artists becomes a would-be metaphor for the commitment that Nellie has so far been unwilling to make. ("". . . Was it true then that Hugo and Nellie's life together existed on the formalest, formalist level--and did that preclude other levels?"") Unfortunately, however, this imagery remains artificial and undeveloped here--especially since Nellie is the least engaging of the sisters, while Hugo is an off-stage cipher. And Hobhouse's feathery narration, British in manner and a tad too self-conscious in its literate-ness, will leave many readers cold. Still: a graceful and occasionally amusing think-piece on contemporary non-relationships--from the author of a Gertrude Stein biography, Everybody Who Was Anybody.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1982
Publisher: Viking