OLD DEVOTIONS by Ursula Perrin


Email this review


Isabel Schliemann, the bright, restless, 36-year-old narrator-heroine here, returns from a trip to Russia to find her Manhattan apartment burned, uninhabitable. So, in search of temporary accommodations, she turns to her oldest friend: Morgan Whiteside, a mother of three in suburban New Jersey whose domestic, settled, WASP-y life has always provided writer Isabel (divorced, resistant to marriage, half-Jewish) with ""a kind of alter-ego--she supplied the flowers and children I didn't have."" Isabel stays for a while with Morgan's neighbor Margaret, an artist with a much-absent husband; the uglier sides of matrimony come out at a local dinner party; Isabel muses on her parents' marriage (a supposed soulmate-ship that ended when her absent-minded historian/father took off with a younger woman); Isabel's chic public-TV-station boss is heavy into adultery. Indeed: ""Every marriage I knew resembled a long war of attrition. . . ."" But this outlook--which helps to fuel Isabel's rejection of wedding-minded suitor David (himself newly divorced)-is suddenly put in a different light when Morgan is stricken with terminal leukemia. . . just as she was about to start a new, non-housewife phase of her life. Isabel, neglecting her job, agrees to tend Morgan's children--including out-of-control teenager Sarah. She finds herself falling in love with Morgan's husband, ""deep and strange and unknowable"" Douglas. And, after adultery, abortion, and betrayal, Isabel--still put off by the fakery of most marriages (including Douglas' quick remarriage after Morgan's death), still haunted by her parents' misalliance--will examine the roots of her blocked emotions, distanced feelings. Despite flashbacks to those troubled parents, however, Perrin never quite makes Isabel's psychological gridlock fully persuasive: some readers may find her fitful behavior more exasperating than sympathetic; and the use of Morgan's terminal illness for a dramatic hinge here seems more than a little arbitrary. Still, if Perrin's fourth novel lacks the subtlety and deep integrity of Ghosts and Heart Failures, it's far more textured and thoughtful than Unheard Music (1981)--so those who identify with Ursula's late-30s crisis will want to overlook the shaky psychology, concentrating instead on the shrewd dialogue, the fine social/suburb observations, and the strong, ironic insights into envy-tinged friendship and souring ambitions.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Dial