cover image FANNY


Edmund White, . . Ecco, $24.95 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-06-000484-2

White's most recent novel, the saturnine A Married Man, showed little of the feline, Nabokovian elegance of his early work—most famously, A Boy's Own Story. White triumphantly returns to form with this historical teaser, a novel wrapped inside a "memoir" of Fanny Wright by Mrs. Frances Trollope. The real Mrs. Trollope is best known for Domestic Manners of the Americans, an 1830s disquisition on her travels in America; Fanny Wright is best known as the utopian feminist who lured Mrs. Trollope to America with her disastrous scheme to abolish marriage and solve America's racial divide at Nashoba, a community she founded in Tennessee. White's conceit is that this is Trollope's last book, written when its author is 76, her health and memory failing, decades after her adventures in the wilds of America when she was in her late 40s. Essentially abandoned by Fanny Wright from the moment she steps ashore, Trollope must fend for herself and see to the well-being of her daughters, her son Henry and her companion, Auguste Hervieu. As Trollope discovers, Fanny, like many a progressive activist after her, implements her humanistic idealism at the expense of her humanity. But White's real subject is Trollope herself: caustic, witty, self-aware, genteelly impoverished, cursed with a cold, hypochondriac husband. Trollope's struggle to maintain her own little bit of interior civilization is a joy to witness. Since Trollope's book is a classic, White risks a lot by offering a competing narrative. He succeeds by letting Trollope's pen run into un-Victorian excesses, giving us the unbuttoned view of her travels. The emotional epicenter of the book is Trollope's affair with an ex-slave, Cudjo, in the unpropitious town of Cincinnati. White's novel, while shying from preaching, is a timely reminder that transatlantic critics of America's "domestic manners" sometimes have a good point or two to make. Agent, Amanda Urban. (Oct. 10)

Forecast:The elaborate conceit may scare off some readers, but Fanny is anything but stuffy. Expect lively review coverage. Six-city author tour.