THE DARK SISTER by Rebecca Goldstein


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 One of those almost too-clever and erudite novels about identity and the nature of women that challenge the head, but neglect the heart, by novelist and philosophy teacher Goldstein (The Mind-Body Problem, The Late Summer Passions of a Woman of Mind). Hedda, a writer of fierce feminist novels whose protagonists are known as JAW's--''Jewish Angry Women''--has fled to Maine to write her next novel in undisturbed isolation. Up in the wooden tower of the house, she begins to write a story about two nameless sisters but is interrupted by calls from her own sister in New York, the much divorced and analyzed Stella. Stella uses these calls to repeat unfavorable reviews of Hedda's novels and complain about her analyst. The two sisters are not close, but they are linked by a common childhood of misery and maternal cruelty. As Hedda struggles with this novel, quite unlike her others, she finds Jamesian characters and style, as well as William and Henry James themselves, taking over her story. Dr. Austin Sloper (Washington Square) appears and calls in William James to investigate the two spinster sisters (now named). Alice Bonnet, plain and unimaginative, is worried about the unwomanly intellectual pursuits of her sister, brilliant and beautiful Vivianna, who studies the stars from a wooden tower. Identities are confused; parallel plots unfold; Stella begins writing successful detective stories; and the three Jameses--William, Henry and Alice--add further commentary, but, meanwhile, Hedda herself is descending into a madness provoked by her realization that ``personal identity is, even while we live, a plumped-up phantasm, a frightened keep the wider sea from breaking through.'' Fortunately, sisterly help is at hand. Witty, learned, and nicely satirical, Goldstein's latest should offer more than a chance for the literate to identify allusions and literary figures, but it doesn't. And Hedda and Stella, whose story should hold it all together, get lost in the brilliant throng. Disappointing.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-670-83556-0
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1991


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