BODIES AND SOULS by Nancy Thayer


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Not to be confused with David Lodge's far superior Souls and Bodies (1982), this overlong novel--a static, soapy close-up of a dozen conflicted souls in a New England college town--lacks the focused recognition-power of Thayer's previous wife/mother/ daughter fiction (Stepping, Three Women at the Water's Edge). The first 300 pages offer seven interior monologues: the thoughts of seven residents of Londonton during a Sunday church service in 1981--all of whom touch on religious feelings along with earthly ones. The earnest minister, Peter Taylor, worries about his flock, about God (who perhaps ""would chastise him for not ministering well enough to his congregation""), but mostly about elder son Michael--a rebellious, increasingly remote post-adolescent. Mrs. Judy Bennett, 45, super-perfect wife of contractor Ron, reveals that there is sheer panic (and the help of Valium) behind her cheerful, efficient, healthy facade. Rich, gorgeous widow Liza Howard, the generally scorned town slut, wallows in her disdain for the priggish community, revels in her ""passionate"" approach to religion; she also revels in her plan to run off with her latest lover--Judy's handsome son Johnny (""Your nipples are strawberries, your testicles are plums, and your penis is lovely, big, and firm"") . . . on the eve of his wedding to prim Sarah Stafford. Elderly Wilbur Wilson thinks about his firm belief in God, his sexual fantasies, his secret poetry-writing. Divorcee Suzanna Blair thinks about her secret lesbian love-affair--a relationship she can't openly proclaim because she fears she'll lose her small children. College prof Reynolds Houston, who has lost his faith, thinks about a bit of academic politics (an engaging vignette), and about his knowledge of secret embezzlements by contractor Ron Bennett. And young Mandy Findly, daughter of divorced porter Leigh, thinks about her passionate affair with young minister's son Michael (and about her discovery of older-female sexuality--at an all-woman party featuring a male stripper). Then, having laboriously established some loaded situations, Thayer follows with an afternoon and evening of melodrama: Wilbur has a heart attack; Liza and Johnny run off, ahead of schedule; Mandy and Michael announce marriage plans; embezzler Ron, confronted with exposure, commits auto-suicide. And the final chapter, a year later, brings the mini-dramas up to date: it's wedding day for Mandy and Michael (who has bloomed into a fine fellow); Suzanna and her lover are openly living together (without the expected brouhaha); Johnny has returned but still loves footloose Liza; widow Judy is maintaining her cool facade, with a new husband on deck; Wilbur has recovered; and everyone's been affected by Ron's demise. A few sturdy ironies about everybody's mis-perceptions of everybody else, and occasional character insights--but, with no real drama and no central character to latch onto, this is a readable, competent, but blandly overextended mix of sex, theology, psychology, and small-town sociology.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1983
Publisher: Doubleday