Abigail De Witt, Author Triquarterly Books $26.95 (307p) ISBN 978-0-8101-5100-0
Loss of faith, life with a mentally disabled child, an inscrutable husband and a mariage blanc: any of these subjects might daunt the most experienced novelist. Tackling all of them and more, De Witt seems mired in the challenges of her debut work. Set in France and opening early in the 20th century, the novel charts the life of Lili Ravaudet from childhood to deep old age, from Lili's earliest memories of growing up on the outskirts of Paris with her twin brother Maurice, her older brother Andr , and her beloved cousin Claude-Fran ois to a lonely moment at a provincial train station after everyone she loved has died. Claude Fran ois and Andr both perish young, as soldiers during WWI. Andre has, however, sent a letter to Lili, ""the only one who ever loved"" him, announcing his plans to kill himself while in the service because he's ""tired of doing what other people want."" Lili loses her faith in God, though she continues to be plagued by Catholic guilt and existential anguish. Turning to philosophy for comfort, she becomes a lyc e professor and falls in love with a geography teacher, Pierre. Once they are married, their passion dies, another source of anguish for Lili, and their son turns out to be retarded. Lili becomes reacquainted with a school friend, Paule Jacob, a woman whose passion for the physical world challenges Lili's more abstract ardors. Lili and Paule have a secret love affair, until Paule, who is Jewish, becomes obsessed with Catholicism. All this is narrated with great reverence for every nuance of Lili's anguished thoughts and feelings. The problem is that many of the other characters remain frustratingly opaque. The reader never knows more than Lili does about her husband, for instance, though the book is narrated in the third person. The last quarter of the novel covers 40 years, from the beginning of WWII to the mid-1980s, and it is here that the narrative finally begins to acquire momentum. Scenes are pleasingly compressed and slip gracefully from present to past, offering a glimpse of the subtlety and depth De Witt achieves at her best. (May)
Reviewed on: 06/05/2000
Release date: 06/01/2000
Paperback - 320 pages - 978-0-393-32318-4
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