In her controversial 1975 novel, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Judith Rossner set out to uncover the ways in which the unconscious leads women to choose destructive lovers. To prove her point, she explored the life and death of New York schoolteacher Terry Dunn. Now, in August, Rossner once again probes the female unconscious, this time in the laboratory of an analyst’s office. In choosing to examine the parallel lives of two women, she has created a novel that is less gripping but equally disturbing.
AUGUST By Judith Rossner (Thomas Allen & Sons,
376 pages, $21.95)
The book is built around the analysis of Dawn Henley, a beautiful 18-year-old who was raised by two lesbian aunts, whom she called Mummy and Daddy, after her real mother committed suicide and her homosexual father drowned. Directing Dawn in her need to sort out the sexes—and herself—is Lulu Shinefield, a twice-divorced 40-year-old psychoanalyst whose own teenage daughter has recently defected to a commune in Berkeley, Calif. Much of the novel is taken up with Dawn’s recounting of scenes from her childhood and betrayals by boyfriends—all in flat, stilted language. After the sessions, the analyst goes home or to cocktail parties to chat with other psychiatrists more crazy than their patients. Such words as “denial” and “transference” dot the pages as the middle-aged professionals try to apply theory to life. “Reality has
marched more than halfway to meet everyone’s paranoia since the term came into general use,” says Lulu.
What the jacket describes as a comedy of manners is not at all funny. Rossner is not a comic novelist. What might have been funny has become, in Rossner’s telling, unbearable. When Lulu’s two sons attack her married lover with a baseball bat and when the affair comes apart because his wife leaves, Rossner achieves a high-wire tension, providing a bitter awareness that no amount of knowledge can help these people. Unfortunately, the two worlds of life and analysis never meet in the book. The desperate Lulu is never integrated with the cool Dr. Shinefield. The secrecy about her work divides her from her children, and her ethics keep her frozen in her chair across the room from her patient. To Dawn, Lulu is perfect, an ideal; to Lulu, Dawn seems little more than a puzzle to be picked through and solved. Even the most charged, intimate moments of the analysis proceed mechanically as Lulu takes Dawn apart and then puts her back together again.
Rossner does succeed in presenting analysis as a more perfect form of mothering. She has written about women creating women, and the echoes grow powerful as Lulu’s failures with her daughter are redeemed by her success with her patient. When Dawn leaves the office for the last time, she carries within her an image of a whole woman—Lulu. The book’s final statement reverberates with irony.
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