BOOKS

Lazy, hazy summer fare

DARLENE JAMES July 20 1987
BOOKS

Lazy, hazy summer fare

DARLENE JAMES July 20 1987

Lazy, hazy summer fare

BOOKS

Summer is the season of rest and recreation, when many readers put aside highminded works in favor of books that sweep them away on a magic carpet of escapism. The following releases are a sampling of the season’s many booklength tickets to fantasy:

For those spending a sedentary summer, Colleen McCullough’s novella The Ladies of Missalonghi (Methuen, $18.95)

is custom-made for reading on a sundappled porch. The best-selling author of The Thorn Birds, McCullough has produced a turn-of-the-century tale set in rural Australia which features three women who endure genteel poverty at the hands of their autocratically benevolent male relatives. Ladies is a quick read, a feminist-flavored Harlequin for the literate. It chronicles the exploits of repressed spinster Missy Wright, usually dressed in decent brown—a color virtuously neutral, showing no stains and screaming of both propriety and genteel poverty. Missy’s secret indulgence in romantic fiction sets off a train of events involving a virile, mysterious stranger that leads to adven-

ture, fulfilment—and a scarlet wedding gown. In McCullough’s world, men may dominate but women ultimately rule— at least when they stop behaving like ladies. Readers who plan to spend their summer on the road —especially those travelling to Italy—will likely find Erica Jong’s kaleidoscopic novel Serenissima (Thomas Allen & Sons, $29.95) a good choice. Jong draws on

her own crazy quilt of identities — poet, crafter of outrageous erotic fantasies (Fear of Flying, Fanny), serious literary scholar, lionized jet-setter wondering if her best work now lies behind her—to knit a tale of a woman “slipping in and out of time,” as Jong puts it. American actress Jessica Pruitt has travelled to Venice to serve on a film festival jury and is enchanted by the city. But her affair with Venice—Italians call it “La Serenissima,” or “The Serene One”—is darkened by memories of her mother’s suicide. Meanwhile, she has just lost a custody battle for her daughter with her ex-husband, who has sued on the grounds of Jessica’s promiscuity. Fatigued by long hours in screening ïrooms, Jessica ru-

minates almost constantly about Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and fantasies of that earlier era gradually consume her. “If there ever were a place to see a ghost,” Jong writes, “have discourse or intercourse with a ghost, Venice would be that place.” It is typical of a Jong heroine that Jessica proceeds to do both. Bouquets of white roses with sonnets signed “W.S.” mysteriously appear in her hotel suite. Then, feverish with a bout of strep throat, Jessica plunges into the Venice of 1592, living out a real-life version of The Merchant, complete with the mandatory Shakespearean blood and bawdiness. The author even describes erotic scenes in such mock-Elizabethan terms as “the

passion of the gleaming knife for the dark sheath.”

But Jong’s lyrical pen can also turn wickedly sharp. Her portrait of Jessica’s agent back in Los Angeles fairly drips with vitriol: “Lance Robbins (né Lou Rabinowitz) is a beach boy of 50 with a voice that sounds like oil on velvet, and absolutely no inkling of why I would want to wait around in Venice when I could be taping a miniseries called Vegas II with Joan Collins and Suzanne Sommers. But then, Lance Robbins dates 25-yearold starlets with implants and probably thinks Will Shakespeare is a hot new restaurant.”

For those who prefer more terrifying summer getaways, Misery (Penguin Books, $24.95) is horror master Stephen King at his classic best. Its hero,

Paul Sheldon —like King, a successful novelist —is held captive by a demented former nurse named Annie Wilkes. Wilkes objects violently to Sheldon’s latest novel, which deviates from his customary gothic formula—and the fact that he has killed off his stock character, Misery Chastain, with whom he has become bored. Wilkes coerces him into producing more of the good old stuff. At one point she cuts off his thumb with an axe; she also uses narcotics and psychological torture to bring the author back into line. But ultimately, pride of craft lures Sheldon into caring about Misery again.

Misery is both a profound comment on the potential price of commercial success and a hefty chunk of selfpitying narcissism from a successful writer groaning all the way to the bank. The plot provokes questions about the relationship between a book’s producer and its consumer, a fiction writer and a fictional character. Who, ultimately, is in control? Misery implies that its millionaire author feels terrorized by his massive audience —a speculation fed by the book-jacket photo, which shows King looking simultaneously diabolical and anxiety-ridden.

The prolific writer’s second offer-

ing this year, The Eyes of the Dragon (Penguin Books, $22.95), is a departure from his usual scary style. A medieval saga aimed at an adolescent audience, Eyes is set in the castle of bowlegged Old King Roland, a man’s man who loves to hunt and joust and belch. The King is also impotent, which troubles him—and will likely also upset some parents of the book’s potential youthful readers.

With its one-dimensional characters, Eyes is a predictable—and occasionally tedious—morality tale in which good inevitably triumphs over evil. King Roland’s elder son, Prince Peter, is loyal, brave, forgiving, democratic and resourceful—the archetype of a boy scout. By contrast, his weak younger son, Prince Thomas, has fallen under the influence of the wicked magician, Flagg.

When King drops his adult, instructive tone, the book is more successful. Like many of his most popular works, the novel shows a keen sense of the developmental crises of youth. The book’s title is a reference to the dragon’s-head trophy hung on the wall of the ruler’s private den. Its eyes are peepholes through which Thomas, in scenes with a distinctively Freudian atmosphere, views the secrets of the adult world. In one resonantly disgusting episode, the lad, unobserved, watches his royal father indulge in nose-picking, flatulence and other private acts. As well, the book manages to convincingly convey some of the growing pains that beset adolescents—including Thomas’s longing for paternal approval.

King’s fantasies are ideal for reading at the cottage, distanced from daily life. But readers stuck in cities this summer need not despair: British journalist Sally Beauman offers a novel steamier than the muggiest subway ride. Destiny (Bantam, $24.95) is a mammoth, 822-page chronicle that almost makes up in breadth for what it lacks in depth. The author is a veteran Harlequin romance writer, and her expertise at crafting purple prose is evident in

Destiny's erotic passages. Most concern Hélène Craig, daughter of a mysteriously absent American father and a British war bride, Violet. Violet is a faded beauty clinging to drawing-room mannerisms in her present home, a two-room trailer on an Alabama back road. Edouard de Chavigny, heir to a jewelry empire, is a poor little rich boy whose parents are emotionally absent. As the book’s title—and many flashbacks—make clear, Hélène and Edouard are linked by fate. When they meet, on a Paris street, they engage in an obsessive love affair spanning continents and decades.

Beauman displays her journalistic background by sprinkling the love story with such historical references as the French Resistance, the Algerian revolution and the U.S. civil rights struggles. Although deftly written, those segments are not integrated into the central drama. Rather, they serve merely as backdrops against which members of Destiny's large cast encounter sex or death—or both.

The book’s greatest strength may lie in its unapologetic refusal to promote any social message. It adheres simply to the classic boy-meets-girl theme. Like an afternoon nap on the porch swing, light summer reading should require little mental effort—only a readiness to enter a world where the gloomy days, inclement weather and heating bills of winter do not exist.

-DARLENE JAMES