WATCHFIRES by Louis Auchincloss


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Though rather too clumsily insistent in its intertwining of historical issues with domestic ones, this is Auchincloss' richest novel in some years: the portrait of an upper-class New York City marriage, 1860-1868--an edgy see-saw marriage that's propelled up and down by the spouses' unsynchronized advances in self-awareness and social responsibility. The first section is the book's best by far. John Brown has just been executed, well-born Mrs. Rosalie Fairchild is secretly (with spinster sister Joanna) aiding the Underground Railway--but Rosalie's stuffy lawyer-husband Dexter is more concerned with a tempest in the social-convention teapot: Rosalie's younger sister Annie, the wife of Dexter's cousin, has been caught in a harmless flirtation with a journalist. So Dexter takes it upon himself to cleanse Annie's reputation and drive the journalist out of decent society. . . until he recognizes--and surrenders to--his own lust for Annie. And adulterous Dexter is soon doubting the social sanctities (""Did even he care any more?""), discovering some role-reversals (Annie is a cold sexual adventuress), and loosening his law-abiding ethics--in a modestly convincing, lightly Jamesian transformation. The subsequent Dexter/Rosalie consciousness-raisings are, however, a bit more contrived. With war, Dexter briefly plummets into disillusionment (he witnesses Bull Run) while Rosalie sails off to selfhood on a hospital ship; then Dexter recovers, doing important Sanitary Commission work, while Rosalie reluctantly, nobly gives up her nursing career to hold the family fort. And in 1868, Rosalie is out in front again--making a scene for women's rights, advocating free love to her prospective daughter-in-law--while Dexter, who shows his own mettle by agreeing to help with the defense of unpopular Pres. Andrew Johnson, eventually catches up with her feminism: ""The only reason I'm in a position to accomplish more than you is that men have had things their own way so long."" True, an anachronistic aroma hangs over much of the dialogue here. And the history sometimes seems crudely tacked in--especially a Vanderbilt/ Fisk/Gould subplot involving the Fairchilds' two sons. But at its best this leisurely, episodic novel does capture the sense of a marriage kept alive by compromise--as two very different people lurch into middle-aged maturity at two very different tempos.

Pub Date: April 20th, 1982
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin