A THEFT by Saul Bellow
Kirkus Star


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The big news about Bellow's new novella (just a bit over 100 pages long) is that it is being published from the start as a paperback--a rare move for a blue-chip writer. The book itself is less momentous: one episode (ostensibly pivotal) in the life of "the czarina of fashion writing," steadily intriguing and crisply told yet oddly lacking in resonance and conviction. Clara Velde, "a rawboned American woman," part Indiana and part uptown Manhattan, has begun middle age in good shape: triumphant career, three darling daughters, and a tolerable fourth marriage (to handsome, ineffectual Wilder). But Clara has never quite accepted the dead-end status of her long relationship with Ithiel "Teddy" Regler--a foreign-affairs expert to presidents (never quite at the Kissinger level) who married other women, wasn't even monogamous in his philandering, and once drove Clara to the brink of suicide. So, when Clara can't find the longtime symbol of Teddy's passion (a valuable emerald ring he gave her), she is deeply upset. Especially since she's convinced that the ring has been stolen by the shady boyfriend of the Velde children's beloved nanny: comely young Gina from Austria. And Clara finds herself facing a series of ethical dilemmas as she tries simultaneously to recover the ring, judge Gina's behavior, reassess the importance of her passion for Teddy. . .and take stock of her own strengths and weaknesses. Bellow works hard to invest this anecdotal material with Jamesian layers of morality and psychology; there's even an explicit attempt to make the doomed Clara/Teddy affair a metaphor for world politics. ("We have the power to destroy ourselves, and maybe even the desire, and we keep ourselves in permanent suspense--waiting.") But Clara, whose dialogue often slides into stagy rhetoric, remains more an assemblage of striking attitudes than a fully drawn, believable character. (The sketching-in of her role as "attentive mother"--which becomes crucial at the finale--is particularly flimsy.) And Bellow's readers will have to be satisfied with the very substantial page-by-page pleasures of his narration: the dry wit, the edgy intelligence, the severely elegant prose, and the easy mastery of viewpoint, time-frame, and voicing.

Pub Date: March 28th, 1989
Publisher: Penguin
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